You’re not alone: Parents with mental illness share what they wish they’d known

Source: Today / Emma Davis

Even with celebrity parents like Kristen Bell and Hayden Panettiere putting mental illness in the spotlight, there’s no “What To Expect” for raising kids while struggling to stay stable. It can feel like you’re the only one toughing out the chaos in your house and in your head.

To remind you that you’re not alone, parents with varying mental illnesses have shared their stories with TODAY. Here are the seven things they wish they’d known about having children and staying healthy.

1. Don’t wait to get treatment.

From the age of 14, Shawn Henfling “could go from zero to righteously angry over nothing.”

“I was never that violent, but I did my share of patching up walls and patching up knuckles,” the stepfather to two recalled.

Henfling, now 38, believed his temper was just part of his personality until he was diagnosed withdepression in 2009. Since starting therapy, he’s been able to repair the relationships his rage affected, especially those with his stepchildren, 16 year-old Nicole and 19 year-old Austin.

“It’s broken a very icy layer that there was between (me) and Austin especially, but myself and my daughter as well,” said Henfling, who lives in State College, Pennsylvania. “That’s one of the few things I’m very proud of having done as a parent.”

RELATED: Depressed dads: Learn about the illness that affects 10 percent of new fathers

Now an advocate for mental health awareness, Henfling’s message to others in his situation is clear: get help. “I should have gotten help two decades sooner than I did. I missed out on a lot of life and a lot of my children’s lives,” Henfling said.

“Had I gotten treatment sooner, I wouldn’t have been a perfect parent, but I certainly would have been a better one.”

2. Self-care is a big part of staying healthy.

Like any father to a 4-year-old, Lorne Jaffe of Queens, New York sometimes feels overwhelmed. However, the 42 year-old’s depression and general anxiety disorder tend to amplify his distress, filling his head with “about a hundred negative thoughts per minute.”

But Jaffe has discovered a surprising solution: going to the movies alone, after his wife has put their daughter to bed. “The movies are like a safe place for me,” Jaffe explained. “I don’t know what it is—I go to a theater, and I start to feel calmer.”

Shawn Henfling leaves the room to read a book. “If things start to get bad, I have to separate myself,” he said. Although Henfling can find it difficult to take this time for himself, he understands that it makes him a better father and partner.

In fact, “putting yourself last is selfish,” parenting author and family physician Dr. Deborah Gilboaexplained. Not only does it teach kids that love means ignoring one’s own needs, it takes away your “best chance at a long, healthy, productive life” as a parent.

When managing mental illness, it’s even more crucial to keep self-care a part of your routine, Gilboa added. Whether that involves exercising, taking medication, or going to therapy, “do what you’re supposed to do even on the days you don’t feel like doing it,” she advises. “It’s probably your illness telling you that it doesn’t work.”

3. Don’t pressure yourself to have a perfect pregnancy.

For both of her pregnancies, Jennifer Marshall of Ashburn, Virginia tried to do everything right.

Marshall learned she was expecting her first child two years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder type I. Concerned about possible birth defects, she made the decision to go medication-free during the pregnancy. She also insisted on breastfeeding, believing that it would be healthier for the baby.


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