Why Chefs Are Prone to Mental Illness

On June 8, Anthony Bourdain killed himself after a long struggle with depression. Many were left confused as to how the charming icon of the culinary world could possibly have been affected. Longtime publicist Karen Reynolds said he was ‘giddy‘ just a week prior to his death.

A TMZ article on his last shoots claims he showed no ‘depression signs‘ both on and off camera. To say this is to misunderstand the nature of depression entirely, as a person with depression does not walk around with a grey cloud above their head at all times and when they are happy it does not mean it has gone away.

Beyond being another celebrity suicide that nobody saw coming, Bourdain’s death opens the heavy kitchen door to an often undisclosed topic, the impact being a chef can have on your mental health.

A restaurant kitchen can be a scary place, something I learned from a young age when going to work with my Dad, who, at the time, was Head Chef of Fulham Football club. When people are paying hundreds to sit down and eat your food, the pressure you put on yourself is crushing. Even when I attempted to start my own career in the restaurant industry in homely riverside pubs and restaurants, the unforgiving hours spent on your feet in a small, hot space lead to constant anger. Bourdain said he’d often find himself in a ‘psychotic rage‘ during service, taking said anger out on his staff. This attitude is par for the course in the restaurant industry and can lead to unhealthy patterns in behavior that result in chefs suffering from mental illnesses such as addiction and depression.

A survey published in the Guardian last year bought the following insight:

Almost half [of chefs] regularly worked between 48 and 60 hours a week. Seventy-eight per cent said they’d had an accident or a near miss through fatigue. More than a quarter were drinking to get through their shift, a figure which doubled to 56% when it came to taking painkillers. A startling 51% said they suffered from depression due to overwork.

Right from the start of their culinary career, being a chef is brutal and the toxic environment of the restaurant industry must be addressed. The Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Industry report in 2011 found that the food industry in America is the number one in substance use disorders amongst full-time employees. This isn’t surprising, as chefs are notorious for working between 50 and 70 hours per week, oftentimes on weekends, evenings and for up to 12 hours per day.

These stressful and harmful conditions take their toll on a person’s mental health, shown in a survey by Trade Union Unite. When asked if their hours impact their mental and physical health, 69% of chefs said yes and that’s just the ones that will admit it. The masculine nature of a kitchen is toxic, with those working in it extremely unlikely to discuss their mental health in fear of being seen as weak.

This extends beyond the kitchen, to the restaurant floor, where studies show that those working in the hospitality industry have poorer mental health than most professions. Wait-staff endure long hours, abuse from superiors and customers, pitiful pay, all the while being surrounded by alcohol and other substances that could lead them down a path of addiction.

Depression and suicide are prevalent in the restaurant industry and must be discussed in order to disrupt the pattern. Kat Kinsman has founded ‘Chefs with issues’ to encourage open discussion about the mental illnesses that run rampant in the industry in the hopes of creating a more healthy working environment.

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