Chad Gillis

 

Chad started officiating for the same reason that most people pick up a whistle: he was fourteen years old and needed some money. So he started officiating and time-keeping games in his hometown in Nova Scotia. That was seventeen years ago and he hasn’t looked back. He officiated in the Midget AAA, Junior B, and Canadian Inter-University Sport Women’s Hockey leagues before graduating from Saint Francis Xavier University and leaving Nova Scotia.

 

Chad was a competitive athlete both on and off the ice and his first challenges with mental health were a result of that. In 2011, he suffered two concussions while playing rugby as he prepared for what was supposed to be his fifth and final year of university. Chad suffered a third concussion in five months after taking a slapshot to the face while officiating a game. Like many athletes, he pushed through it, doing two more games that day and two more the next day. But his body had other ideas; he tried going to class the day after and ended up in the hospital.

 

“There were days where I’d just decide ‘I’m not getting out of bed, not for anything.’”

 

It was at this point that Chad’s day-to-day existence became a struggle. He was on bedrest for a period of time as he recovered from his concussions and had difficulty reading. This caused Chad to fall behind on school and forced him to go back for a sixth year of university. It was during this time that he began to struggle with his mental health. He became more and more isolated. Instead of hanging out with friends, he would be leaving class and heading straight home. The only time he knew he could force himself to get out of bed was to go to the rink; that was his escape.

 

“I ended up in a church and just sat there, crying. I didn’t know how to be okay.”

 

Things came to a head as Chad approached his final set of exams, in his sixth year of university. He knew something was wrong, his couldn’t pretend that his situation was normal, but he didn’t know what to do. One night, Chad went out wandering and found himself sitting in the sanctuary of the church on campus, alone, at 4 AM, crying. The next day, he went to student services and asked for help.

 

“It’s not that my family wasn’t supportive but I definitely felt pressure there… I didn’t want to talk about why I hadn’t graduated”

 

Chad didn’t complete his exams that year. He began seeing a doctor who prescribed antidepressants but at that point, he couldn’t take on the gruelling task of end-of-term exams. Chad moved back into his parents’ house and took an extension to try and finish a required course. During this time, he also had an overwhelming feeling that he needed a change of scenery. He can’t quite explain it but in his home town amongst his family and friends, he felt pressure to be okay and he still was not okay.

 

Chad moved to Yellowknife that summer and his mental health began improve almost immediately. A short time after his move, he was able to stop taking antidepressants and seeing a therapist. He tried continuing his education via an online correspondence but he still found reading and focusing difficult. Chad let his coursework linger and that caused him a lot of stress, which impeded his recovery. He still was not sharing the full truth about why he hadn’t graduated in the spring as expected.

 

“I might have seemed like I was being social but I was quiet… I was only out of the house so I didn’t have to be alone.”

 

Chad admits that even now, even with his wife, he is not fully comfortable talking about his experience. At the time, his struggles with mental health were marked by an attempt to withdraw from the people around him. Chad was quiet in class and would drink four or five nights a week to make sure he wasn’t at home alone with his depression. While officiating was an escape, it didn’t address the root of the problem. Officiating helped him hide his depression. Not because Chad thought that his fellow officials would be unsupportive but because he wanted the hockey world to see him at his best. Above all else, officiating was still what he loved doing.

 

Chad’s mental health continued to improve during his time in Yellowknife. He was able to stop taking antidepressants, and he saw success on the ice as well. He achieved his Hockey Canada Level 4 certification and officiated in the Arctic Winter Games. In 2015, he moved to Oshawa with the intention of just working minor hockey and maybe some Midget AAA. But after spending a few years in the area, Chad’s competitive nature kicked into gear. In the summer of 2017, on his anniversary, with a three-month old baby at home, he went to Don Koharski’s Officiating Development camp and earned a spot on the OHA roster.

 

“You don’t want to pry but if you leave people with a smile… sometimes that’s all you can do.”

 

 For Chad, the best defense against isolation is for people to understand and recognize the signs of poor mental health. If someone had recognized what Chad was doing and had reached out, things might have been different. At the same time, Chad recognizes that he did a lot of work to conceal what he was going through. You don’t want to pry and that means there’s only so much you can do; but we should still try. For Chad, this means making sure people know that there is always someone with whom you can talk. He sees himself as living proof that even at your worst moments, there is hope. Chad’s worst moment is tightly bound to one of his best. Six years after he spent the night sitting alone in a church on the campus of St. Francis Xavier University, he married his wife in the same sanctuary.

 

On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Chad’s story in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.