Uplifting message about depression proves popular on TED

Bill Bernat
Comedian Bill Bernat on stage at TEDxSnoIsleLibraries

Bill Bernat is a recovering addict living with a bipolar condition who advocates for mental health awareness from the stage. He already had plenty of storytelling/comedy cred – including performances on the Moth Radio Hour, Comedy Central and Ignite Seattle – when he decided last spring to give the TEDxSnoIsleLibraries stage a shot.

TEDx events are locally organized versions of TED Talks, the international platform in which speakers present “ideas worth sharing.” What would Bernat’s idea be?

He came up with “How to connect with depressed friends.” It was spring 2017 and he was coaching storytelling workshops for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Washington chapter. So he asked participants what they thought of his idea. They, or their friends and family, had all struggled with mental illness.

“They all said ‘It’s really important for people to hear that message,’” Bernat recalled. “That was a big motivator for me.”

The idea was a grand slam. Not only did Bernat make it onto the TEDxSnoIsleLibraries stage in November 2017, but his talk was reposted on March 2 by TED – the biggest global storytelling stage of all. Within a few weeks, his serious and seriously funny How to connect with depressed friends had been watched more than a million times.

The first hint of big things to come was when ideas.ted.com contacted Bernat and asked to post an article based on the text of his talk. The “terribly exciting” word that TED was re-posting his talk video came in a phone call from Ken Harvey, communications director for Sno-Isle Libraries and lead organizer of the TEDxSnoIsleLibraries events.

“I was on vacation, hanging out with my mom and brothers when Ken called. I came back to them and said ‘I have some big news!’” Bernat said. “Of course, being a catastrophizer, I figured there was a chance someone made an administrative error and they weren’t really putting me on TED.”

“Sitting in on Bill’s talk preparation sessions gave me an early sense there was something special woven into his talk,” said Harvey, who obtained the license for three TEDxSnoIsleLIbraries events. “There have been some tremendous ideas presented by engaging speakers from our region over the past three years. We couldn’t be more excited about the reception his talk is receiving.”

Reaching people

Bernat gets emotional reading the video comments, most of which come on TED’s YouTube posting of the talk. Among them:

I am laughing and crying at the same time. I have spent my whole life around depressed people and had a few episodes myself. I learnt a few new tricks here, for both sides of the fence. The rest I can verify as very good advice.

Absolutely essential listening for all. I’m a paramedic with a history of mental health problems, both work and non-working related. Mental health problems are fairly common in any cohort in society, but more so in emergency workers, and this video gives me some guidelines on the conversations I should and shouldn’t have with workmates that are struggling. Thank you.

I find these tips very helpful. I was messaging a friend last night who had been considering ending her own life for the past few days and the only thing holding her back was her pride. I wasn’t exactly sure how to talk to her about it and many times I just froze mid-conversation. … I really just wanted to say “You are loved, you are an inspiration, and you can fight on.”

The talk has been subtitled in seven languages so far. Many people have reached out to Bernat through his website morelesscrazy.com to ask advice and share their own stories. People are finding and friending him on Facebook.

Life on the world stage

What impact is the international exposure going to have on his life and comedy career?

“I’m pondering that,” Bernat said. “I had a lot of other things scheduled in this time frame. I’ve been too busy to think ‘What do I do now.’ I would like to do more speaking and more comedy, all about mental health.”

This spring, Bernat is performing in two shows at Seattle’s Pocket Theater featuring people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. It’s called the Nearly Sober Comedy Show.

Chief among his current projects Brain Power Chronicles, the NAMI Washington storytelling initiative that will culminate in a Nov. 10 performance in Seattle.

“We’ve done auditions and selected storytellers. I have a guest lecturer at each of these workshops, and I’ll bring my own material,” Bernat said. “We’ll help people tell their story, and tell it well.”

Bernat himself got help from TEDxSnoIsleLibraries speaking coach Joanne Congers. One crucial lesson, he said, was how to begin his talk.

“I was unsure whether to start with a story or a point. Joanne said ‘Definitely start with a story.’ That was really helpful. That felt right.”

Regarding his success at TEDxSnoIsleLibraries and what’s come after that, Bernat said, “There are so many to thank … too many. Specifically, I want to thank Joanne and (speaker coach) Phil Klein, as well as the folks at Sno-Isle Libraries and TED for making this all possible.”

His advice for aspiring TEDx speakers?

“Watch Chris Anderson’s video, which tells you everything you need to know in under eight minutes. He boils it down to four points.”

Anyone looking for inspiration to reach high need look no further than Bernat’s life. At 54, he is grateful to be in recovery from addiction and living well with mental health conditions. He not only has a rising stage career but has a separate technology career. He has worked as a computer programmer at NASA and helped take LookSmart public as an engineering leader. Now he works for Adaptiva, an enterprise software firm in Kirkland.

“I’m in content marketing. I was a technical person for about 15 years, but got burned out being a manager of database administrators. So, I built a new career in technology marketing.”

Bernat seems to excel at both reinvention and normalcy.

“There is a lot of value in having a regular job and being a mental health awareness advocate,” he said. “I’m showing that people can enjoy regular lives.”

About TEDxSnoIsleLibraries

A total of 53 speakers and performers were featured at TEDxSnoIsleLibraries  “library without walls” – events in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Thousands of people attended in person or watched the live-stream event online. Individual talk videos, including Bill Bernat’s TED video, have been viewed online more than 1.76 million times. The events were licensed through TED.com and made possible through the generous support of 38 community partners, including founding sponsor, the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation. Event organizers have taken a hiatus and no TEDx event is scheduled for 2018.