Hospitality’s Mental Health Struggle

By Stephen Hickmore – The first week in May was especially difficult. It was a dark week. We lost two lovely chefs. They decided that life was no longer worth living. We didn’t see it coming. They both seemed just fine. Bright, sparky as always, funny and full of fun. Two vibey and talented guys. But, they chose an optimistic sunny day in Autumn to end it. Life was just too painful. Who knows what joys they will miss, the success not experienced, the friends not met. A tragic loss, and now, as I write this, I hear of the suicide of world renowned chef and author Anthony Bourdain. Devastating.

Recently, I’ve been in conversation with chefs about mental health challenges. It’s not that chefs are a special study group on depression and anxiety, I don’t have any statistics to refer to and I am not a psychologist, I just talk to people. But, anecdotally, we have a massive problem in our society and our culinary community. The hospitality industry tends to attract deeply creative types. The work is arduous and does not always allow for a healthy balance in life.  Along with musicians, artists, writers, chefs appear to be a particularly vulnerable group.

The ‘black dog’ of depression, as Winston Churchill called it, is a bitch to shake off and a silent, lonely struggle. All people suffer from low mood occasionally, we are happy and sad ‘cos we are human. But, I am not talking about being down in the dumps here. I am speaking about a crippling dark abyss. A foggy and fearful place where light has no dwelling, where the pain of hopelessness rules supreme. A place that sucks all energy, decimates joy and annihilates happiness. An inescapable labyrinth in a tortured mind without a skylight to see out or in. I know that place, I’ve visited it and I’m not going back.

Mental illness never discriminates. its victims can be wealthy and successful and appear to have perfect lives, like Anthony Bourdain. But, when the mind is in such turmoil the black dog’s prey looks for an escape. Tragically, this escape is often suicide.

Selfish! some people say. It’s not. A sufferer can be in such mental pain that the belief that they have no place in the world is wretchedly dominant.

They say it’s easy to snap out of it, to overcome the temptation to end the hurt, to simply put on a Disney style happy face, click ones heals and be magically transported to a place where all is safe. I only wish it were that uncomplicated.

Most employers and colleagues don’t see that mental illness is life threatening. Sufferers are often afraid to talk about it lest they lose their job or be branded an employment risk. A nutter, mad as a hatter, bonkers.  Stigma stops people coming forward and opening up.

Unlike other illnesses and dread disease, the symptoms of mental illness and depression are hard to see, no plaster cast or scar from an operation. For some victims simply getting out of bed and making it to work takes courage and mind over matter. Attaching a cheery façade to mask the sadness of desperation is a daily make up routine for many.

Research shows that many mental health conditions are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors — not personal weakness or a character defect

Chefs, we need to talk about mental illness now! Look around you. At least one member of your brigade is battling with something.  We need change in our kitchens. The long hours, the relentless pressure, the often-conflict-ridden environment is a potential breeding ground for anxiety, mental illness and life-threatening depression.

Let’s not be afraid to talk and create an environment where it is possible to do so.

A person living with a mental illness will tell you that being able to talk is a life saver. The first step on the road to recovery is to ask for help. No person should feel shame in saying “I am not coping, I need help” to a colleague that one can trust. Getting the treatment needed starts with a simple conversation and an empathetic ear.

Listen, help your buddy talk it out. Support her struggle and be compassionate, have patience but don’t try to be a psychologist. Help him get the support needed.

Let’s not lose any more gifted chefs and friends. Let’s take care of each other.

Keep an eye out for changes in behaviour: –
Tiredness and loss of energy. Complaining of sleeping problems
Sadness that doesn’t go away.
Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.
Changes in personality
Difficulty concentrating at work. Increase in errors.
Not being able to enjoy things that are usually pleasurable or interesting.
Avoiding other people
Loss of appetite and weight

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