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Newton hears how one suicidal teen chose ‘to stay alive’

The 20-year-old Canadian high school basketball champion, writer, and comic stood alone on the stage of Newton North High School cracking jokes, poking fun at himself, and
poignantly detailing the pain and isolation he felt as a teenager too ashamed to talk to anyone about a depression so deep he contemplated suicide.

Kevin Breel described the night of Feb. 26, 2011. He had just led his basketball team to a championship and was named a first-team MVP. When he got home, he went to his basement and wrote a suicide note.

“I didn’t really think I was living a life; it was just a lie,” he told the audience of about 400 at the third Youth Summit held in the city, the first since three Newton high school students committed suicide.

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“My life was about fear of being honest with myself, of letting people know what I was really feeling, of telling people I had a problem, that I was flawed,” he said.

But he said he kept coming back to one word: honesty.

“I made a choice that night to stay alive and try to do something to change. That night I had the first conversations with my family, then with my friends, and my teammates,” Breel said.

He told the silent group of students and adults that what he learned by sharing his pain was that he was not alone. He was not alone in the world, and he was not alone in feeling the way he did.

It was just the message that Mayor Setti Warren, School Superintendent David Fleishman, and many mental health professionals have been telling the community since the first suicide last October.

And it is a message many in Wednesday night’s audience said the community, especially young people, need to keep hearing.

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“Everything he said was so applicable,” said Newton North High School senior Jared Perlo, a member of Newton’s Teen Voices, the student group that organized the program.

“A lot of my friends are suffering, a lot more than the community realizes,” he said.

Breel’s message became public last year when he was invited to give a TEDxYouth talk. A video of the talk was posted on YouTube.

“I figured 10 people would see it, and I’d know five of them,” he said.

But 30,000 saw the video during the first week, and soon there were 500,000 and then upward of a million and more.

He is now touring Canada and the United States telling his story at fund-raisers for suicide prevention and mental health awareness programs at college campuses and other venues.

He also speaks at high schools, but said he is turned away often by those who aren’t ready to hear someone speak openly about suicide.

“A lot of times someone will suggest that I be invited to a school as a speaker, and the principal won’t allow it,” he said after the program, saying some are afraid to ruffle feathers in the community.

“But tonight is the exact opposite of that. The leaders of this community, the administrators of this school, the staff, they care,” he said.

“It’s hard to talk about these things, but it’s even harder to lose someone and then ask yourself what you could have done,” he said. “That is what today is all about.”

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The mayor said Newton will continue to lead the conversation.

“I really believe what we heard tonight is that we have to communicate with one another, and we have to destigmatize mental illness,” Warren said.

“We have a responsibility to reach out to people who may be struggling,” he said.

Breel said that while growing up in British Columbia, his identity revolved around athletics and theater.

He was outwardly smiling, always telling a joke and being funny. But, he said, he was really in a fog.

“My mind wasn’t at peace. I felt overwhelmingly helpless, like nothing I did really mattered,” he said.

“I fought it. I hid it. Maybe if I swept it under the rug no one would notice, and no one would think less of me,” he said. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t really work.”

He felt so low, he said, he turned to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to feel high.

All that lying led to the night he wrote the suicide note, and to ultimately come clean to his family about what he had been going through.

“I realized the secret was what was suffocating me, not the struggle,” he said.

Breel started seeing a counselor, which at first he dreaded. But he soon realized that despite the protests, he always felt better sitting in that chair and talking to someone he trusted, who cared, and who knew how to help.

Breel said he still struggles with depression, but has learned how to take care of himself.

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“If six shows in a week feels like too much, I take a break,” he said. And he still works with his counselor, even if his sessions are sometimes over the phone or computer screen.

During his talk, Breel told of the personal impact he felt when he heard about the suicide of Amanda Todd, a Canadian teenager he never knew, who died in 2012.

He said he became fascinated by the story, which was headline news in the Vancouver area for about two weeks. Then, he said, the story just disappeared.

“The thought that one day she was here, and the next day she was gone because of something inside her head, just broke my heart into a million pieces,” he said.

“Suicide has a ripple effect; they rip apart families, friends and communities.”

For many in the audience, Breel’s story sounded familiar.

“He was really relatable, especially talking about Amanda Todd, that really hit home,” said Newton North High School senior Elizabeth McDonald. “In that way, we could really understand where he was coming from.”


Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.