Just 19, but smarter than most.
That was the status my friend used on a TEDxKids video she shared on Facebook.
I was intrigued. How could a teenager be smarter than me? I had 44 years of worldly experience behind me, plus years of my Father attempting to impart his wisdom at the supper table (until he realized it was futile and gave up).
I had to be way smarter than this kid.
So I watched the video. My Facebook friend was right.
Not only has writer, comedian and mental health activist Kevin Breel come to some of the same conclusions about mental health, stigma and life that I have (we are equally as smart at this point), he has taken them further and articulated them eloquently in front of an audience at a TEDx event (okay, he’s got me there).
Without further ado, here is Kevin’s TEDxKids Talk; a video I am very happy to see is quickly gaining momentum through views on YouTube. I believe EVERYONE should see this–whether you’re a teen or not, you experience mental health issues, or you just want to learn more about navigating life.
AND below the video you will find the interview I did with him to find out more about his story with depression and how he got to be so damn smart.
Trish: You said you experience intense depression on a daily basis. When did it start? Was there an event in your life that you feel triggered it?
Kevin: I can’t remember an exact moment where I thought “oh my god now I’m depressed” but I can remember I feeling of it at 13. I had just lost my best friend to a tragic car crash and I was dealing with grief and anger and a whole other mix of emotions. Obviously, that was a different type of depression so to speak, so I wouldn’t say that is exactly fair to lump together. But I definitely found out how it feels to not really care much about life during that year and that feeling is extremely close to what I feel sometimes when I fall in to a deeper depression. So I got a glimpse of it young for sure.
Trish: Describe your experience of intense depression and how does it affect your life today?
Kevin: Well, my bouts with depression is something that truly fascinates me because of how intense it can be but also how insightful it can be. I think depression affects my life more today because of what happened in the past more than what is happening with it right now in the present. I’ve found out all the important things in my life through periods of depression. All the truth and meaning I have discovered in my life was born out of a bout of depression. It’s very interesting that way. And also ironic, because on one hand, I almost took my own life because of it, and now I appreciate my life so much more because of it. So it’s very interesting to me.
Trish: You talk about leading two different lives because of depression. Could you elaborate on how it felt to hide the depression and how you made the decision to be more open about it?
Kevin: I feel like a lot of us know what that idea of “living two different lives” is like. I took it to extremes maybe because I was this happy, outgoing, big athlete by day and this suicidally depressed teenager by night. So it was definitely two total extremes but that’s why it was ultimately so conflicting. The polarity of it all was much to extreme. One day I would be euphoric about winning a basketball game and the next I would be having these very dark, very dangerous thoughts and feelings. So I felt like people didn’t really know me; which was true because I wasn’t actually letting them in to be able to see me or know me. That’s the fear I talked about in my TED talk, is that after a while you get scared that if you let someone in on your darkness, they would forever question if your light had all been an act. After a while, that fear motivates you to not let anyone in I think a bit.
Trish: It’s my understanding you now speak about your experience at high schools and universities all over the place. How has speaking out about it changed your life?
Kevin: I speak at high schools and college and events, yes. That’s definitely been my favourite part of the activist work I am doing- actually getting able to connect with people on such a personal level from the stage. This year, I’ll be traveling all over North America speaking. So that’s really been an amazing thing to get to experience. It’s great to be able to share my story and have that help people in some shape or form. I think that’s really powerful. And then from a very selfish stand point, I get to meet some super amazing people whenever I am speaking. That’s probably one of the best perks possible. I’m really passionate about speaking. And if you want to come see me speak live, you can join my email list on my website to be notified of live dates in your area.
Trish: You talk about the massive problem of depression in our society and how that results in a suicide every 30 seconds. You talk about how you came to that point and you came very close to taking your own life. What stopped you and how has that changed your perspective on life?
Kevin: Suicide is the driving force behind why I am so passionate about doing what I am doing. We have an epidemic problem right now where people are taking their own lives at such an alarming rate. To me, suicide is the worlds most preventable tragedy. Because the help for someone who is suicidal is there; we have crisis lines and mental health professionals and all the necessary resources. But yet, people are still committing suicide. Why? I think that is an impossible question to answer, but I believe adding more awareness won’t hurt. I can only speak from my own experience- so take that for what it is- but I know when I was suicidal, it was because I didn’t know it got better. I didn’t know there was another side. I didn’t believe in a different potential outcome. That’s what I’m trying to do now- especially for young people; just be that different potential outcome. Be the proof that there is another side, that it does get better. Because it does. But I didn’t have anyone there to tell me that- not anyone that I trusted or I wanted to listen to at least. So that’s what I’m trying to do with my TED talk and my speaking at schools, I just wanted to give the talk I needed to hear back when I wanted to take my own life. And I hope that in doing that, I can make a difference in the lives of one kid and one family.
Trish: You talk about how you become numb to the suffering and pain that comes with depression and you fear the stigma. How has that fear of stigma affected your life? What advice would you give others who face the same stigma?
Kevin: Well, I think the reasons society has a tough time accepting mental health issues is because it is the ultimate exploration of the true vulnerability of our humanity. It is exploring the idea that we might have “flaws” and not be perfect. That is very ego shattering. We live in a society I believe where the ego is the most important and prized part of our psyche. Exploring mental health issues is very ego destructive I believe- it makes us realize like you said, we are all humans. For me, mental health is a very interesting representation of a subject I believe needs a much bigger conversation around it: truth. When are we going to start accepting and embracing some of the truths in our humanity? Why can’t we be open to the idea that there are varying degrees of a persons physical health and there are varying degrees of their mental health? I’m not sure why that is so difficult for our culture to understand.
Because what truly happens when we live in a world where we fully accept mental health issues? What is that really saying? That’s really saying we fully accept ourselves and others. We have empathy for others. We understand and acknowledge where they are coming from. That is a vastly different emotional place to be working from than our current structure of ego and narcissism and rapid consumerism where we praise the person who acquires the most material items. So that’s what I think is really behind this topic: is a larger conversation of honesty and truth.
Trish: If we lived in a society where it was appropriate to say “I suffer from depression.” Where it was okay to say “I can’t do this. I can’t cope.” As you suggest; where we embrace our humanness and accept ourselves for it. If we lived in a society like that, how do you see that changing the misconceptions around mental illness?
Kevin: I see a society that is open to mental health as a society that would be inevitably open to life and themselves. The reason we are afraid of mental health and self injury and suicide is because it’s a dark, un-entered basement of your mind. It’s dark and scary and you don’t know what might be inside there. So it’s safer to not walk in there and explore it than it would be to have an honest dialogue or conversation about it. So that’s why I am so passionate about this topic: because it’s about these bigger ideas of acceptance and honesty and love. That’s what I’m really trying to get across to people. That it’s okay to show some of your humanity, some of your flaws, some of the things that actually make you NORMAL, not weird.
Trish: You make the point of whether we are depressed or not, we know what it is like to suffer, to hurt, to feel pain and how important it is to heal. That regardless of what we call this, we all experience it because we are people. So based on your life journey so far, what advice would you give people for when they experience these human conditions/emotions?
Kevin: Yeah I think that’s something I really try to communicate: that we all know pain and hurt and we all need to be able to find hope and and find help and heal. It doesn’t matter what you label it with or whether or not you call it “depression”. It’s ultimately about understanding that everyone goes through difficult seasons in their life. And if you are going through a difficult season in your life, understand that there is lots of love for you here. There is hope and help and professional people who want to help you and talk to you and get to know you. You are not alone. Far from it actually. Be honest. Find your sense of community- whether that be your friends and family or something beyond- and have these honest conversations with them. And if you need to, invite help in to your life. There are people that can and will and want to help you. Recognize that and embrace that. We’ve created this idea in peoples heads where it’s “weak” to ask for help. When someone breaks their leg, is it “weak” for them to go to the emergency room? That’s kind of an ironic double standard to me.
Trish: A word that really stood out for me in your talk was “vulnerability”. How do you remain vulnerable in your experience with depression when the expectation, especially as a male, is to remain stoic and strong?
Kevin: I think the idea of vulnerability- as with anything- is just a self imposed label and judgement. To stand here and say “because I’m a man, I’m not going to talk about my emotions” is a pretty hilarious statement to attach yourself to. The idea that being strong means never showing any weakness is pretty hilarious to me. Let’s just go through life being tough and pushing our chests out and pretending nothing ever gets to us. That sounds like an awesome existence. Obviously, I’m kidding. I think that the human experience is a lot about self discovery and self exploration and asking these big questions and having these difficult conversations about topics people tend not to talk about. I’ve developed many friendships with athletes- both at the amateur and professional level- who tell me they could never talk about their mental health issues in front of their team mates because they would think they were “less of a man”. Or “less of an athlete”. What an interesting culture that demonizes the pursuit of honest and self discovery. We should all be able to talk about everything; we are human beings. Defining yourself by the stereotypes of a particular gender role is ultimately silly to me. Be who you are; not who the guy in some beer commercial is being.
Trish: How do you manage your daily experience of depression and lead the busy, exciting, hormone-filled, angst life of a teenager?
Kevin: I don’t know if my depression is so much of a “daily experience”. I think like anything, it comes in waves. But I definitely do things every day that are self care and to make sure I’m mentally staying healthy. So I guess that is a bit of a balance but I honestly enjoy it. All the things that go in to healthy self care are things I’ve become obsessed with. Like meditating. Sometimes, if I don’t have much I have to do that day or I’m on the road, I’ll meditate for hours. It’s amazing to just let go of your thoughts and your judgements and all this clutter you are carrying around in your mind. I meditate twice a day- I have for almost three years now- and it has totally been a transformative catalyst in my life. It’s awesome. So yeah, I do stuff like that.. yoga, exercising, occasionally going and having very honest conversations about depression with someone.. All things I know are fundamentally good for anyone to be doing and things I would encourage to invite in to your life. It’s also hilarious to me we live in a world where if you eat healthy, do yoga, and meditate you’re “nuts”, but if you hate everything and eat junk food and think everything sucks, you’re “normal”. That’s an over generalization I know, but that’s how I feel sometimes. If you do anything to talk about your emotions or improve your look on the universe and your role in it, you’re “crazy”. Bottle everything up and play video games for 6 hours a day and you’re fine. Haha.
Trish: I’m blown away by the insights in your TEDx Talk. How’d you get so wise?
Kevin: Ha! Well thank you. I don’t think I’m “wise” at all. But I think any insight I might have is all derived from A) personal experience and B) self reflection. And I think, all of us know these things about ourselves, but we just aren’t comfortable enough with ourselves to SAY them. Basically for a month before this TED talk I was just meditating and trying to let go of all my self judgements about saying some of these things. I couldn’t even write the talk until 7 days before the event. It took me that long just to get comfortable with being this raw. So I think that’s probably the bigger challenge. We all have the wisdom but it’s more about finding the faith and the courage to express it.
Trish: The title of your TEDx talk is “Confessions of a Depressed Comic.” How has being a comedian changed your experience with depression or vice versa? Do you call upon your experience with mental health when you are writing for your stand-up routine? If so, what is your funniest mental health joke?
Kevin: I don’t really pull mental health stuff in to my stand up routine.. Maybe some day.. But I’m not there with it yet for whatever reason.. I sort of separate those two things for now… But depression has helped me see how cool of an experience comedy is.. It’s literally making people forget about who they are for a second and just laugh their ass off.. That might be one of the best things we have left in our society ha! People are scheduling time out of their day to have fun and laugh and be loose and I think that’s the coolest thing ever. Being around comedy has been the defining difference in me being able to work through my personal stuff. It just reminds me not to take things so seriously, not to judge yourself, and just calm down a bit. I’m not sure how to best describe it but comedy has really given me a lot of insight in to depression and what it really might mean. So I’m very, very grateful for comedy and everything it’s done for me.