A talented former high school athlete and honour roll student who is outgoing and has a lot going for him, Kevin Breel may not present as a stereotypical mental illness sufferer.
But the Lambrick Park Secondary grad, who plies his trade these days as a standup comic, has been battling depression for years and has become a sought-after speaker as an advocate for talking about mental illness. Toronto-based Breel, 23, brought his message of hope to Vic High students Monday, telling them how he nearly took his own life, how he addressed his illness and how it’s important to reach out for help.
Vic High vice-principal Chris Koutougos, who taught Breel at Lambrick Park, has kept in contact with him over the years and arranged for him to speak at Vic High. Having a young person relay their experiences with depression and solutions to teens is a good way to encourage people to speak up, Koutougos said.
“Part of it is us as a learning community recognizing the importance of understanding depression and understanding suicide, and [Breel’s] story came to mind,” he said.
The feedback on the talk was largely positive.
“He told us stories that helped us understand that this isn’t only about statistics, it’s about real people with real experiences,” said student Ahmina Ibrahim.
“While I don’t struggle with depression, it’s great to hear these stories so that we’re all aware,” added classmate Bridget Laver. “I really enjoyed how he infused humour into his stories to help us understand these important issue. I wish more people could hear his message because I think it could save lives.”
A concept that school staff picked up on was that Breel encouraged students to seek out supports already available in school, even if reaching out is on a friend’s behalf. Some Vic High students have already taken that message to heart, reaching out to school counsellors to have a conversation about where they’re at.
“What I’ve noticed about this building is how caring it is,” said Koutougos, in his second year at Vic High. “Not only the adults, but the kids care for each other and I’ve seen how important that has been to helping individuals be successful.”
Given his notoriety, Breel commands a healthy fee for public speaking, which more often happens at universities or corporate conferences. Given his connection with Koutougos, he agreed to forego his fee if the school would make a donation to a charity aiding youth mental health.
That will end up going to jack.org, a network of young leaders in high schools and post-secondary institutions across Canada working to change the way people think about mental health.