Standing up for what matters

Jessica Rowe has spent 20 years in front of the television cameras. Now she is leading a campaign to stop bullying of children

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Jessica Rowe’s fellow You Can Sit With Me ambassadors Nicole O’Neil, Sophie Falkiner, Manu Feildel, founder Sophie Whitehouse and husband Peter Overton. Bottom right, Jessica poses for a promotional picture for her website craphousewife.com. Top right, with mother Penelope.

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WITH half a century of experience in the television industry between them, Peter Overton and Jessica Rowe are one of the eastern suburbs’ most recognisable couples.

But it’s the work they do off camera that makes them such an inspiration.

The mental health advocates have been appointed as ambassadors to You Can Sit With Me: an initiative tackling the growing scourge of bullying.

Children simply wear a yellow wristband to show students who are feeling isolated they are welcome to sit and play with them.

“It’s such a simple and effective way to show someone in the playground that there are peers who won’t accept bullies and there is someone who is willing to put an arm around you,” said Overton, who is the chief newsreader on Channel 9’s evening news.

“Bullying exists no matter what school or suburb of Australia you live in, so this provides a sanctuary to those children who are doing it tough in the playground.”

Rowe and other high-profile ambassadors – including chefs Manu Feildel and Neil Perry, and TV presenter Sophie Falkiner – were among the 833 attendees at the soldout You Can Sit With Me fundraiser at the Ritz Cinema at Randwick on Sunday.

Proceeds also went to the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation.

Rowe, 47, said she was shocked to learn one in four Australian children fell victim to bullying.

“We hear more and more stories about kids being bullied and what I love about this campaign is it’s as simple as a child wearing a wristband,” she said. “It serves as a symbol to other kids that if they are feeling alone, this is someone who will keep an eye out for them.”

Rowe said the campaign empowered children to stamp out bullying from a young age.

“It’s so important to look out for the vulnerable people around you, whether it be in school, in the workplace or just in general life,” she said.

It is clear why the motherof-two has become such a passionate champion for vulnerable people in the community.

Her mother, Penelope, has bipolar disorder.

“She taught me the real meaning of resilience, courage and bravery because for many people it takes enormous courage just to get out of bed,” Rowe said.

Her mother, who is a writer, is the reason Rowe went into journalism.

“Mum always impressed upon us the importance of asking why and speaking up, and she was always interested in finding out people’s stories,” she said.

Rowe understands all too well the heartache and stress a mental health condition can cause a family.

But it wasn’t until she suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her eldest daughter, Allegra, that Rowe understood the level of stigma and shame that comes with having a mental illness.

“There’s almost a double stigma because everyone around you is telling you how happy you should be and you know how happy you should be,” she said.

“But I’ve never felt so wretched and sad and also because, in my earlier life, I always felt very strong and capable. So the fact that I couldn’t cope, that added to my sense of failure.”

Rowe shares her story to encourage others to get professional help, as she did.

Post-natal depression affects one in seven women, according to Beyondblue, for which Rowe is also an ambassador.

She and Overton are also both patrons of the Mental Health Council of Australia.

“Both of us feel very strongly about talking about the importance of mental health and removing stigma that unfortunately surrounds it,” Rowe said.

“Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, even though at the time you feel like a failure.”

They are also ambassadors for Kookaburra Kids, a grassroots organisation, that runs camps and programs for children of parents with a mental illness.

“I understand how isolating it can be to be a child of a parent who is unwell and many of these kids have never had a holiday, so it’s a really amazing organisation,” Rowe said.

With a TV career spanning 20 years, Rowe said she was the happiest she had ever been at Channel 10 morning talk show Studio Ten.

“I have found my place,” she said. “I can be myself, warts and all. I snort when I laugh, I wear my heart on my sleeve, which is just me and I love the people I work with.”

She said it was “business as usual” at Ten, which went into administration last week.

“We are fronting up to work,” she said.

As a family, they like to go out for dinner at Rose Bay, and to Nielsen Park and Watsons Bay in summer.

She puts her phone in an “unreachable” place when she is home so the family, who live in Vaucluse, can spend quality time together in the evenings.

She feels lucky that she has a family-friendly workplace and that Overton is “such a hands-on dad”.

“The reality for many women who have kids is they either slip out of the workforce for some time or their career takes a backwards step,” Rowe said.

“I think that is the challenge for workplaces – to be truly family-friendly for both men and women.”

Rowe has learnt to embrace her flaws and has launched a new website – craphousewife.com – which has struck a chord with women.

She posts pictures of the mediocre meals she makes at home in answer to women who make other mums feel bad by posting pictures of their perfect meals and packed lunches on social media.

“I think there’s far too much pressure on women to have it all: the charmed life, the husband, the career, the children who have brushed hair and are well-behaved all the time,” she said.

“That is just not life, so let’s drop the facade.

“It’s about saying, ‘I’m not perfect and that’s fine’, and hopefully that resonates with other women who can also embrace their inner crap housewife.

“For me, real power comes from being vulnerable, exposing vulnerability and that we all have our struggles; that’s what connects us.”

It’s so important to look out for the vulnerable people around you, whether it be in school, in the workplace or just in general life