Two years ago, Kevin Breel led Lambrick Park secondary to an Island basketball championship. He was named a tournament all-star, was the leading scorer and his family and team basked in the glow of victory.
A few hours after the game, 17 at the time, Breel sat on the edge of his bed at his Cadboro Bay home and contemplated suicide with bottle of pills. Clinical depression doesn’t care about the elation of sinking three pointers and winning games.
The moment was both terrifying and liberating for the Saanich teen. He stepped back from the brink.
“In school I had a good life. I was popular in high school. That made it harder to talk about depression because of losing social status and value. Burying that down manifested itself that night,” Breel says.
“I realized I have a choice to not be afraid, not to hide what is killing me ... I had really hit bottom. I became much more free.”
Breel has transformed his battle with depression into a inspirational talk and cautionary tale for high school kids across Victoria and B.C., mixing the story his illness with his passion for standup comedy. He leads with the laughs to keep the kids’ attention – it’s the “sugar to go down with the medicine,” he says.
At 19, Breel remains a peer to most of his audience, an asset when talking about the trials and stresses of high school life.
“I’m giving the talk I wanted to hear in high school,” he says. “The goal I picture in my head is there’s one kid exactly like me in high school, and eventually I’ll come to that school and hopefully I’ll change or save his or her life.”
After graduating from Lambrick Park, Breel didn’t imagine he’d be stepping back into classrooms so quickly. He wanted to start honing his skills as a standup comedian, but he couldn’t get into comedy clubs as an 18 year old.
“I was too young to go the bars to do comedy. I started coming to schools to talk about depression in a way that wasn’t boring.”
Using humour and hardboiled honesty, he told his story to small groups of troubled kids at alternative schools in Victoria and Vancouver about the stigma of depression, which gave way to invitations to speak to entire schools. In May, Breel gave an engaging and brutally frank talk as an invited speaker at a TEDx conference for youth in West Vancouver.
“I’m getting offers to speak all over, Yukon, the U.S. It’s amazing seeing people reach out,” Breel says. “Two years ago it was my worst fear to tell anyone about my depression. Now I do it every week.”
Comedy remains a key creative outlet for Breel and a counterweight to depression. At Lambrick Park in Grade 11, he knew he’d pursue it as a career after impulsively asking if he could say a few words about a departing student teacher.
The next morning he riffed off a roast that had students and teachers roaring. It was a life shifting moment.
“Kids were laughing, (the student teacher) was laughing. All the other teachers came in and watched me rip into this guy. The teachers knew it was inappropriate to laugh, yet they were,” he said. “That was it. I was definitely doing that (as a career).
“Comedy is my passion. I feel expressive and artistic. I have a side that most people get talked out of, of being silly and out there.”
Breel credits Allen York, department chair of counselling at Oak Bay High, with saving his life. York counselled Breel in the wake of a friend’s death in a car crash, and kept counselling him during his time at Lambrick Park and through being diagnosed with clinical depression.
York said at Oak Bay and with counsellors at Lambrick Park, Breel worked hard at managing his depression. He returned to Oak Bay this year to talk to students about mental health on the invitation of his former counsellor.
“Kevin talked about the stigma of mental illness. He is received well by the kids. He just says, ‘hey, don’t hide from it ... reach out and get help,’” York said. “I’m thrilled he’s setting an example for more and more young people to say, ‘I’m in your age group and I’m saying it’s OK to talk about this stuff.’”
York, a counsellor for 46 years, said teens and young people are slowly opening up about mental health issues, but certainly peer pressure and cultural norms remain problems, especially for males.
“Kevin is a guy and men traditionally have a hard time talking about feelings. There are sad men out there. ... He doesn’t use the most dangerous words in the English language: ‘I’m fine.’”
As schools close for the summer, Breel is focusing on producing a short documentary about depression for classrooms.
“With depression, I’m not upset and have no regrets. It’s helped me see into different parts of life. Comedy has elements of tragedy. It’s funny to make fun of the truth.”