Standing before a crowd of roughly 100 students and community members, mental health advocate, comedian and writer Kevin Breel spoke about his experience with depression and offered advice both to those suffering from a mental illness and to those looking to help loved ones through their struggles.
Breel’s talk was hosted by Mind Matters, an advocacy group on campus, and Turning Point CT, a statewide peer-support group. Breel’s TED talk, “Confessions of a Depressed Comic,” is one of the most viewed talks in history with more than three million views online.
“If you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you struggle with mental health, it feels like everyone will run away,” Breel said.
Mind Matters Communications Coordinator Michael Berry ’17 said Breel’s message closely aligns with the group’s: to make students feel more comfortable openly talking and confiding in each other about mental health problems.
Following his humorous opening about visa mishaps, credit card malfunctions and a Yale baseball cap, Breel spoke about his childhood. He emphasized his lifetime of experience in dealing with mental illness from having grown up with a father who struggled with addiction and alcoholism. His technique of intersecting jokes into an otherwise heavy talk kept the audience engaged and on its feet. He brought people near tears, both through laughter and in somber recognition of the issues he discussed.
“I picked up quickly [that mental illness] was something we didn’t talk about,” Breel said, adding that mental illness was something his family would “sweep under the rug” as they silently watched his father become “a shell of himself.”
The moment of change in his life, Breel said, was when his best friend died at 13, the first time Breel said he ever dealt with grief, depression or pain. He said that his upbringing taught him to bottle up his emotions and “push down” what he was feeling.
Breel said that Feb. 26, 2011, was the turning point in his life. That night he wrote a suicide note, and at 17 years of age, prepared to end his own life.
“I got really good at being two different people,” Breel said. “There was one version of myself where I’d put on this mask, I’d put on this armor, but there was this other version of me where I’d go home each night and I’d think about taking my own life as a way to get control back from something that had spiraled out of control.”
Reading his suicide note, Breel said he finally could comprehend the issues that had been haunting him for years. He said he realized that there was a commonality amongst the list of things on that sheet of paper — they were all things he kept a secret.
Breel highlighted the importance of recognizing that mental health problems exist and the significance of being open about inner struggles, potentially with a counselor.
“As a society, how do we engage with suicide?” Breel asked. “Why does no one talk about this?”
Recalling the piece of advice from his counselor that launched him into a career of speaking publicly about his struggle with depression — “All our lives are a story, and with that story, you can either be ashamed of it or share it” — Breel was encouraged to talk about his struggles. A year later, he was invited to a TEDxKids conference in Vancouver where he first delivered “Confessions of a Depressed Comic.”
Skyrocketed into fame, Breel’s depression went from being his best-kept secret to something four million people talked about and recognized him for. He spoke of the initial regret he felt for having done the TEDxKids talk, but said his mindset changed when other individuals began sharing their personal experiences with him.
Breel emphasized the prevalence of mental illness, noting that one in five people struggle with their own mental health, but “five in five” will be affected by it
“Mental health and its ramifications will find its way into your life,” Breel said. “Do these people not matter? Are they just a statistic?”
Breel’s advice to those who struggle with speaking to a friend or family member suffering from a mental illness was to remind the person that they are “enough as [they] are.” He added that two out of three people will never ask for help because of shame and embarrassment.
Berry noted that Yale students in particular often fail to prioritize their own mental health above other commitments. A 2016 Yale College Council Health & Wellness report showed that more than 40 percent of respondents feel uncomfortable seeking professional help for mental health problems, primarily out of a fear of being seen as “vulnerable” or “unable to handle life at Yale.”
The path of recovery involves realizing that mental illnesses are part of the human experience, Breel said, and are in no way a rock of shame that should be dragged around silently an endured in solidarity.
Ruhi Manek ’20 responded to Breel’s emphasis on openness and acceptance enthusiastically.
“I was horrified to learn that in the US a teenager is lost to suicide every 30 seconds, yet mental illness, something so evidently apparent in society, is still such a taboo topic,” she said.
The talk ended in thunderous applause and a question-and-answer session where Breel offered a few key reminders: First, just be there.
“All someone who’s depressed really wants is for someone to sit on the edge of your bed and talk to them,” Breel said. “If they don’t want you on their bed sit outside their door and just let them know you’re there.”
And second, he said, live an authentic life and be honest about any emotions.
“You have to own your story or your story ends up owning you,” Breel said.