Kevin Breel Helps Alleviate the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

“As you know, we care not only about helping you develop your intellectual passions and pursuits, but also about helping you develop the tools to lead physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy lives,” began Headmaster Brennan, speaking to boys at the year’s opening Health and Wellness Hall. Last year, Roxbury Latin launched a program for RL’s older boys aimed at addressing topics related to health and wellness. This year we will continue that program by bringing to campus individuals who will broach such topics as depression and mental health, addiction, and nutrition. This fall, mental health activist and comedian Kevin Breel spoke not only to students in Hall on September 26, but also to a packed room of Roxbury Latin parents the evening of September 25.

“This conversation, about mental health, has been really personal to me for almost my entire life,” began Kevin. Kevin grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, in a home where his father struggled with depression and addiction. “Growing up in that home, one of the first things that I picked up on as a young boy was that we weren’t supposed to talk about what my father was struggling with. I internalized that it wasn’t to be discussed, because we never talked about it. As a young kid, I’d come home at 2 or 3 on a Wednesday afternoon and find my father passed out, blackout drunk, on the couch. On a Friday night, I would hear a knock at the door and find two Canadian police officers standing at the door to bring my father home from the drunk tank. I thought these experiences were normal, because they were all I knew. No one ever used words like ‘mental health’ or ‘depression,’ ‘addiction’ or ‘alcoholism.’ It was just swept under the rug, and I developed this understanding that this was a secret—something to be ashamed of.”                                        

Kevin went on to discuss the lifeline that his childhood friend, and his friend’s father, afforded him, offering security and a safe haven in an otherwise chaotic family life. He went on to share how that middle school friend was tragically killed in a car accident, and how the grief of that loss triggered his first experience with his own depression. “I remember thinking, ‘No matter what happens today, if the best thing in the world were to happen to me today, I wouldn’t feel joy. I wouldn’t feel happy.’ I was just numb.

Because Kevin didn’t have the language to describe what he was going through, he didn’t seek help—he didn’t know help was an option. So, as he says, he got good at pretending. He pretended for four years until one February evening, when he was 17, he sat on his bed with a bottle of pills and wrote a suicide note. In a moment of clarity he realized that he’d literally never told anyone what he was feeling, or what he was struggling with. “I thought, how can I quit on myself if I’ve never tried to help myself?” He talked with his mom the next morning, and she immediately connected him with a professional counselor who—several years later—he still sees today.

“We have this culture that treats physical health as real and important, and mental health as, kind of, made up and not okay to talk about,” Kevin explained. “That’s just incorrect, and silly, and—frankly—dangerous.”

Emboldened by the support he received; his promise to be honest about what he was feeling; and by the news of a tragic teenage suicide in a neighboring area, Kevin decided to share his story—with the knowledge that if he reached and helped even one person struggling as he had, it would be worth it.

“We don’t relate to statistics. We relate to stories. We all have a story, and I’ve learned you only have two choices with that story: You can share it, inviting people into it, or you can be ashamed of it, hide it, put up walls. Either you own your story, or it owns you.”

Kevin’s first public talk about his experience was at a TEDx event for youth in 2013. Today, that video of Kevin’s talk has garnered more than 4.4 million views. “So often we think, ‘I want to make a difference in someone’s life, but I don’t know how. I’m not qualified. I don’t have a degree. I don’t know the right things to say.’ I’ve realized that maybe it’s not about any of those things. Maybe it’s just about showing up for someone and letting them know that you care about them, that they can talk to you, that you won’t judge them. We all have that ability and opportunity, but we need to start seeing it as a responsibility. I believe that if we change the conversation, we can change our communities, change our culture. Then maybe we can live in a world where there are not a million suicides a year, but because of the conversations we start right here today, there are zero.”

Kevin Breel’s honest—and often humorous—take on his experience with depression, and his message of ending the stigma around mental illness, resonates with all kinds of audiences. Deftly combining his mental health activism with his comedy, Mr. Breel has been a guest speaker at Harvard, Yale, and MIT, as well as for Fortune 500 Companies, and even for the Government of Canada. His memoir, Boy Meets Depression, achieved critical acclaim. Mr. Breel has been featured on a wide variety of news outlets including NBC, CBS, The Huffington Post, MTV, CNN, Today, and in the Wall Street Journal.