How mental illness made me a better parent

Making sure she fills her own cup first has made Jill Chappell gentler, kinder, and a healthy role model for her kids

By Jill Chappell

The term mental illness conjures up all types of images, but I doubt any of those pictures equate to the cover model of Today’s Parent. It’s yet another example of stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction I challenge you to change.

As marketing and communications lead of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, my main goal is to improve the lives of Nova Scotians, and their loved ones, living with mental illness. Our team raises funds and educates people province-wide to create hope and put an end to stigma. Our foundation works to ensure those living with mental illness and addiction are thriving in our communities. It’s an uphill battle, but we’re giving mental illness a run for it.

So how did a television broadcaster end up working to better the lives of families living with mental illness and addiction? First and foremost, I’m a storyteller and publicist with an extensive professional network, which happens to include my former colleague Starr Cunningham, president and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. But I also had a leg-up on the other applicants; I had firsthand experience living with mental illness.

Today my twin boys (yes, twins) are almost four-years-old. They are full of energy, make hilarious observations about the world, and make my life so much richer. Adjusting to motherhood was no easy task, but today following a successful pool and pizza party for 18 preschoolers with no tears, tantrums, or fights, I’m feeling pretty good about my parenting abilities.

Four years ago, it was a different story. I was 30 weeks into my first pregnancy. It was a complicated one as is often the case with multiple births. I thought I was mentally prepared for the challenge, but the ensuing pre-term birth, followed by a four-week NICU stay proved to be more than I could handle.

Becoming a parent was a significant lifestyle adjustment, but there was more at play. Still, anything that seemed out of the ordinary, I attributed to the added workload of having twins. High levels of anxiety, the inability to make decisions, fits of rage and irritability, peppered with bouts of insomnia and guilt. Oh, the guilt. All classic symptoms I brushed off as parenting rites of passage.

Once my maternity leave was over and I went back to work, everything started to unravel. Once a punctual employee, I had trouble making it to the office on time. I would lie awake at night unable to sleep despite the physical demands of two busy toddlers and a full-time job. I couldn’t handle any amount of stress and now the emotional toll wasn’t impacting just me. My entire family was feeling the effects of my undiagnosed illness.

I remember the moment I decided to make a change. Our childcare arrangements weren’t working for us anymore and the burden of finding a safe and nurturing environment for our children was too much to bear. With the support of my husband, I made the difficult decision to quit my job. I would focus on eliminating as much stress as possible and get to the bottom of what was wrong.

I began seeing a counsellor and after several weeks was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and was exhibiting signs of postpartum PTSD. Being able to put a name to what I was feeling was a huge relief. I now knew what I was facing and could focus on addressing it. I began taking anti-depressants and still take them today.

Counselling was an important part of my treatment plan. It helped me change my pattern of thinking and relearn how to communicate with my loved ones. It taught me to be gentler on myself, to let go of expectations, and reminded me to have a sense of humour when faced with life’s challenges. It not only improved my personal outlook but my entire family’s quality of life. It helped us reconnect and realize we’re not alone. Every family has their own struggles.

Mental illness may have robbed me of some that new baby joy, but I believe I’m a better parent for it. It has allowed me to rebuild a life for myself that prioritizes the most important things, including mental health and my family. I’ve gained perspective, understanding, empathy, and patience (most of the time). And I now realize the importance of filling my own cup first so I can be a kind, positive, and healthy role model for my children.

Navigating the health-care system over the past two years has opened my eyes to the critical need for mental health programming and services in our province. I have an excellent family doctor who has guided me through every stage of my illness. I’ve found a great counsellor who supports my emotional well-being. I’m lucky because that’s not the case for everyone. However, we do have the ability to change that for our children.

I believe a world where mental illness is treated equally to physical illness is within our grasp. Where help is readily available. I’m committed to changing the public perception of mental disorders and I challenge you to do it too. Make mental health literacy a priority in your family so our children don’t have to fight stigma, plead for help, suffer in silence, or worse.

Our tagline at the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia is: Changing the way people think. I hope this column will allow me to not only change the way parents think, but how they interact with their children and others daily.

Thank you to Our Children and editor Ken Partridge for this incredible opportunity. I’m really looking forward to putting on my journalist hat again and helping families make mental health a part of their conversation around the dinner table. It’s certainly something we all can and should prioritize, protect, and value in our community. It will not only make us better parents, but better human beings.

Jill Chappell is the marketing and communications lead for the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia.

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