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The Caterer

Battling mental illness

03 March 2016
Battling mental illness

The suicide of chef Benoît Violier prompted many chefs to question their lifestyles and the pressure points in the kitchen. Jamie Lumsden, a chef who has battled mental illness, tells his story and offers assistance to others dealing with the black dog of depression

On my 18th birthday, I travelled to London from my home town, Colchester. I worked for free in a French bistro in Soho until I was given a paid position. I wanted to learn to cook and to gain experience of classic French dishes, and over time I am pleased to say that I achieved that goal.

What I didn't bank on was simultaneously falling into a deep, dark depression.

The thing about kitchens is that they are usually the sort of environment where chefs, like me, are taught to "man up" and "get on with it", with the belief that if you do, you will become a stronger person mentally. In fact, it seemed to cause the exact opposite for me, making me anxious. I found that the more I suppressed my emotions, the worse I got and after practising this for such a long time, it became a way of life which eventually became destructive, physically and emotionally.

I was in the depths of my darkest depression (that I was a master at hiding) before I realised what was happening. I had a few months off but, after much nagging from my aunt I decided to go on a personal development course, which made me realise what I needed to do to get help.

I was still very confused at this point, so I also decided to visit my GP, who advised me to go to a therapist. I did exactly that, but once I was in the room, I found that I was just trying to kid myself that time and therapy would heal me. My doctor put me on anti-depressants - the highest recommended dose of anti-depressants - but they just numbed the pain. I was just 20 years old. I carried on with various medications, but all had pretty much the same dulling effect.

I went back to my GP and told him that I felt nothing was helping and that I was really desperate. He referred me to a psychiatrist. I met the psychiatric team, a few weeks passed, and I had heard nothing. I called my doctor, who explained that the specialists had decided that I didn't need their support - but they hadn't bothered to tell me.

While I tried hard to accept this decision, I felt worse - eventually, I found the courage to tell the doctor that I was ready to end my life. A week later I had an appointment with the local mental health hospital, where I was put on a strong dose of anti-psychotic drugs. The first dose left me physically and mentally incapacitated for 48 hours.

After building up a small resistance to the medication, I thought that it must be working because I didn't feel anything. It was almost like my personality had been locked away in a dark room and I was completely withdrawn.

The dosage was reduced, and I started to realise that the medication had just covered up what I had been feeling, and that I couldn't sustain a normal life while feeling like I did with or without the medication - I was in a vicious circle I was desperate to get out of.

I then decided that I had to try something else, and I began having counselling. I've now been attending counselling once a week for a little over a year. It takes the edge off things and gives me a chance to sit with my emotions in a safe and non-judgemental environment.

The problem is that not every chef can go and see a therapist or speak to a close friend when they spend 14 hours or more a day in the kitchen and their only time off is Sunday night - time better spent with loved ones.

This is a very big problem. How can we get support when we work in such an unsociable job? So after working with personal development charities, doing some therapist-based college work and tons of research, I gained my own understanding of mental health - one that I was ready to use to help others.

I posted onto a Facebook group of over 30,000 chefs, many of whom have mental health issues. I offered my services as a listener with common interests, as I am also a full-time chef. I simply wrote a few sentences offering free support to those who couldn't get out to see a therapist because of the nature of their job. I left my mobile number, thinking that I would get slammed with abusive comments because I was showing that I had a major weakness, and that I wasn't nearly 'alpha' enough for a large group of chefs.

I stared at the post for a good 20 minutes, thinking: "Here goes, why not?" I had every excuse not to post it, but I pressed the 'post' button anyway, and carried on preparing for the evening shift at the restaurant I was working at.

After my shift I checked my phone and could not believe the response. I can honestly say I've never felt so human in my life. Over 700 chefs had reached out to me in some way, some asking for support, some just saying thanks.

Since then, I've gathered that this was a much-needed service - one that I so badly wanted to provide and still do. Some chefs just want a quick five-minute chat. Some people ask why I don't charge money like most therapists do. My belief is that I get payment from what people give in telling me their story, which is always valuable to me as it helps me understand myself, and it helps me to build a common ground with other people who I speak with. I use the same framework as most therapists just without the cost, the set times and with a more relaxed approach.

I would like to thank The Caterer for allowing me to share some of my experience of mental illness. If you would like to know more or feel like a chat, you can contact me atjamiewlumsden@hotmail.co.uk

You can contact Hospitality Action for free on 0808 802 0282, or mental health charity Mind atwww.mind.org.uk

BenoÁ®t Violier Switzerland-based chef BenoÁ®t Violier was found dead in his home on 31 January by his wife Brigitte, having reportedly committed suicide by shooting himself, with his motive unknown. He was 44.

The French-born chef ran the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville in Crissier near Lausanne. His death came just months after that of his mentor at the restaurant, Philippe Rochat, who died after falling ill while cycling last year.

A host of legendary French chefs came out to share their condolences, with Pierre Gagnaire tweeting: "My thoughts go out to the family of BenoÁ®t Violier. Very sad news about an extremely talented chef."

Paul Bocuse tweeted: "Great chef, great man, gigantic talent. All our thoughts go to the family and those close to BenoÁ®t Violier."

Violier had worked at L'Hotel de Ville since 1996, and had taken it over with his wife Brigitte in 2012. He had gained Swiss nationality and also produced a book on game meat last year. The restaurant itself was world-renowned, and has also been named top of the prestigious 1,000 best restaurants list compiled by the French government, simply named La Liste.

Violier's funeral took place last month with over 1,500 people in attendance. He is survived by his wife and son.

In 2003, the culinary world was left equally shocked by the suicide of Bernard Loiseau, who had been distressed about criticism of his restaurant La Côte d'Or in Burgundy and rumours that he would lose his third star. He committed suicide using a firearm.

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