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For years Kevin Breel hid his depression behind jokes and laughter. The aspiring stand-up comedian couldn’t talk to anyone about his pain until it got so bad he considered taking his life. What kept him from sharing his struggle and looking for help was the stigma surrounding the mental illness, he says in a new TED video that’s gone viral.
“[I] was one of the lucky ones, one of the people who gets to step out onto the ledge and look down but not jump,” he says on the video.
Breel spoke about his case with TODAY’s Willie Geist.
Like many of the 121 million people worldwide who suffer from depression, Breel said he was leading a double life. In high school, while everyone else saw a happy popular kid and star on the basketball court, deep inside there was a boy tortured by intense pain that kept ratcheting up.
“I'd look at the school,” Breel told Geist. “And I would know in my head that, ‘I'm about to walk in there and smile, laugh, high-five people, and put on a total front.’"
If you haven’t been depressed, there’s no way to understand it.
“Real depression isn’t being sad when something in your life goes wrong,” Breel says. “Real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right.”
“I felt like I couldn't be happy,” Breel added.
He believes his depression was triggered by the tragic loss of a best friend coupled with the divorce of his parents, and he turned his feelings of loss and anger inward.
“I started to, in a way, hate myself,” he said. “I felt so unhappy and I couldn't explain why or justify why to anyone. So I didn't feel like I could talk about it.”
As a teenager he used sports as a way to escape his pain. But his successes, instead of making him feel good, only underscored how bad he felt.
“We had just won a high school basketball championship, and I was leading scorer of the tournament,” Breel said. “I was first team all-star, and our team won the championship. I had everything that I had thought of for four years. And I realized that that wasn't going to take away my pain.”
So, at the age of 17, Breel sat down on his bed with a bottle of pills and a pen and a paper preparing to take his own life.
“I remember this one moment where I was writing and I got sort of to the end of the page, and I realized that I've never once talked about any of these things—never,” he told Geist. “And if someone were to read this, a friend, my family member, my coach, my teammates—they would have no idea. And I thought that I can't quit on myself until I try and help myself. And it just broke me open.”
Breel got help. And as part of his recovery, he began speaking at schools to try to educate kids about depression. Eventually he caught the attention of TED, an organization dedicated to sharing ideas, and his video went viral.
“What you really fear the most isn't the suffering inside of you, it's the stigma,” he says. “It’s the shame, it's the embarrassment. We live in a world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you're depressed, everyone runs the other way.”
Breel’s video has already received 1.5 million hits, according to TODAY. “It’s a dream come true,” he said, and there is now a positive side to his depression.
“Life is about duality,” he told Geist. “There’s happiness; there's sadness; there's light; there's dark; there's hope; there's hurt. And I think that, for me, nothing in my whole life has ever helped me understand more about myself, more about others, more about life than dealing with depression.”
While Breel is unique in being brave enough to stand up and talk about his darkest days, he’s far from alone in his struggle, Dr. Gail Saltz told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie. “One out of every 10 teens has depression,” Saltz said.
For depression to lose its stigma, people need to recognize that it’s an illness, Saltz added.
“It really is a biologic process,” she explained. “Something is going on in your brain that causes you to feel sad. It doesn’t have to do, necessarily, with what’s going on around you.”
Parents need to pay close attention to their kids’ moods, Saltz said, "because you can intervene with depression and treat it. But you can’t with suicide."