When Boy Meets Depression
A Conversation with Author, Kevin Breel
Q: Millions of people suffer from depression, especially in Western societies. Why is it okay to claim a physical ailment and yet completely taboo to admit to suffering from depression when we live in a society that demands so much of us all of the time?
A: It’s a great question. I wish I had a great answer. From my experiences, I think there is some sort of “invisible line” we’ve drawn in the sand that separates our empathy for physical pain from emotional/ spiritual pain. A long time ago in my TED talk, I offered the idea that if you break your arm, people will sign your cast but if you tell people you’re depressed, sometimes people run the other way. I think that increasingly, that is starting to change. But at the moment, there is still a large majority of the world that is afraid of words like “depression” or “mental health”. Unfortunately, what we haven’t yet realized is it’s not like there are some people who struggle with “mental health” and some people who don’t. We all have mental health. If you have a brain and you are a human being who is alive, then you have a “mental health”. From there, it’s just a spectrum. For some people, it’s a day to day challenge. For others, it’s not. But I think the main thing is building empathy and realizing there is no “them” only “us”. We’re all in it together.
Q: Why has it been so difficult to break down the stigma attached to depression?
A: I think because to some degree it’s not a “sexy” topic. We live in a society and a culture that praises success and beauty. We have a hard time with the rougher edges of life. It doesn’t make for as cute of an Instagram post. So we tend to sweep it under the rug. Also, for the individuals struggling, it can provoke a lot of shame and insecurity. People feel defective or broken. Of course, this is a total paradox because they only feel this way because of the lack of discussion around the topic. But nonetheless, it makes people feel vulnerable and as human beings I think we tend to want to avoid being vulnerable. It feels scary and unknown. However, in my own life, running to that vulnerability as opposed to running away from it, has given me some of my greatest epiphanies and perspectives on myself and life.
Q: You're a comedian and at the same time the author of a very successful memoir on your struggles with depression. How do you think society perceives someone with such seemingly opposing backgrounds?
A: Well, to me, I don’t see them as very different. To be a comedian is to explore all the edges of life and try to make something funny or entertaining out of things that can sometimes be dark or scary. To write a book on my struggles as a teenager is to sort of pursue the same thing. I wanted to go in to that pain and see what I could pull out from it. But honestly, I think it’s just about being a human being. I am not my “job”. I am a person who feels things and thinks about things. I think it’s ridiculous to label someone into a box as small and narrow as what their “profession” is. So for me, it’s never been much of an issue. But hopefully, it can help shift some of the ways in which people view the topic. I think the way I approach it is certainly different since I am not a counselor or someone who is formally educated. I just speak from experience and offer my own personal story. That’s really all I have. So hopefully people can relate to that on some level. Certainly, that was the only motivation to write this book. I wanted to just offer myself in all my vulnerability to the world in the hopes that some kid out there who is stuck in a dark place like I was as a suicidal teenager, might pick up the book and go “hey, I’m not all alone like I thought I was”.
Q: As an activist, what would you say are your lifetime goals in terms of eradicating the stigma surrounding depression?
A: I would say my only goal is to make people feel less alone, and as a result of feeling less alone, have them be able to share. I don’t think these issues are going to change because of government or big organizations. I think they will only change as a direct result of individuals sharing their stories and having honest and encouraging conversations. So I hope my work in this area can encourage those conversations. That someone might pick up my book, read it, and then pass it to a friend so they can have a dialogue about it later, that’s my goal. Because that changes everything. When we feel less alone, we can change things. But we can’t find an answer if we are still afraid of the question.
Q: If you could offer one piece of advice to our Depression Army community, what would it be?
A: To anyone out there in the Depression Army community, I would say this: Understand how much your voice matters. The great thing about the digital age is that it has given all of us a megaphone. Use that to encourage these conversations. One thing I love about you guys at Depression Army is your engagement. A lot of pages around mental health have “followers” but no engagement. And I don’t mean this from a vain, metric driven point of view about retweets or something. I mean you guys respond, you engage, you comment back and forth to each other. That’s powerful. When a sixteen year old kid who is struggling stumbles across that page and sees there is a real, living group of people talking about this stuff, it means the world. So many people just want to feel less alone before they can dream of talking about their struggles. And your community makes them feel less alone. That’s real. That’s powerful. That matters. So never forget that. The more you share your story, the more it enables others to do the same. And that right there conquers shame, conquers fear, and conquers the silence that has surrounded these issues for far too long. So keep going.