Mental Illness in the Culinary World

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness,” yet only half receive treatment. And research conducted by Oregon Health & Science University shows that the millions working within the hospitality and restaurant industry are “at greater risk for depression, sleep problems and stress compared with employees who work in non-tipped positions.”

Today marks three years since Anthony Bourdain’s untimely passing. The well-known outspoken chef with a bad boy approach to just about everything he did, at least in the public eye, suffered from mental illness and wrote of his battle in his best selling book, Kitchen Confidential:  “I couldn’t even bear to pick up the phone. Instead, I’d just listen to the answering machine, afraid and unwilling to pick up. I was hiding, in a deep, dark hole, and it was dawning on me that it was time, really time, to try to climb out.”

Mental illness, substance abuse and depression run rampant throughout the food industry and it strikes hard and fast and it doesn’t discriminate. Men, women, hugely successful chefs, restaurateurs, back-end short order cooks, the guy who flips the burgers … everyone is susceptible. Everyone.

Workers in the accommodations and food services industry are more likely to self-report illicit drug use and, at nearly 20 percent, post the highest rates of substance use disorder. 
— Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Survey on Drug Use and Health 

Why? A few years ago I sat down with one of the top chefs in the Midwest, Indianapolis-based Neal Brown, to get his take on this widespread issue. Brown’s earned local and national recognition as both a restaurateur and chef; is a two-time nominee for the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest Region; and his bar, The Libertine, was recognized as one of the 25 Best Bars in America by Esquire magazine. But while his successes have been many, Brown, like so many working in the food industry, suffers from depression and has for many years.

“I’ve been very open about my struggle,” says Brown. “In my industry, drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues … it’s nothing new.

“Providing hospitality is a tough business with a lot of stresses. We work long hours in stressful conditions which affect our diet, mood and relationships, and for not a lot of money. Most people are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have any idea how to be financially responsible.” It’s these conditions, says Brown, that spur drug and alcohol abuse, mental health disorders and lead to high rates of divorce, obesity and depression.

“Think about it: When most everyone else is winding down, relaxing, enjoying a night out … we’re on our top game. We don’t get to relax until everyone else goes home. And when it’s time to go home, when the rest of society is winding down, we’re still jacked up so we go for cocktails with friends … it’s a wicked spiral.”

But while the working environment is unquestionably conducive to poor mental health, the people who work in the food industry tend to be also more susceptible to issues, just by their very nature. “We source people from the fringe of society,” says Brown of many of the people who work in restaurants and bars, whom he describes as “creatives who are great at taking care of others, but lack the time or energy to take care of themselves.”

“The overwhelming truth is that we lack balance, and the things that make other people successful are the things we’re the worst at,” he says.

What does balance look like? It’s different for everyone, I suppose. There is no perfect prescription, or description for what gives a person the clarity they need to live fully. But one thing’s for sure … while one person might need a little more of this or a little less of that, everyone needs balance … the hard part is knowing where to find it.

“Good food and good eating are about risk. Every once in a while an oyster, for instance, will make you sick to your stomach. Does this mean you should stop eating oysters? No way.”― Anthony Bourdain

On Being a Flexitarian


  1. Dorothy's New Vintage Kitchen

    Sadly, this is so true. I have a friend who owns a restaurant and has been battling for years with her alcohol dependence. The stress of operating a restaurant six days a week, most weeks in the year, on a tight budget with staff difficult to find, has left her drained of even the energy to try to help herself.


  2. DailyThoughtsProject

    Anyone in the field of hospitality is going to struggle with this. Know why you do this and what keeps you going. Stop when needed. Good post.


  3. Tardy Millennial

    Excellent post. When I was young and naïve I could only dream of living a life just like Anthony Bourdain, but when he passed away I realized that there is more to life than traveling, eating exotic foods, etc. Mental Health became my first priority.


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