Mental Health Awareness Week

Andy Aston: The Importance of Mental Health Awareness

It’s been great to see so many chefs encouraging others to speak out when they need to, in light of Mental Health Awareness Week. Our head of nutrition and wellbeing for London, Andy Aston was recently appointed the Craft Guild of Chefs wellness ambassador, a new and important role for the Guild to support the mental health and wellbeing of those working in our industry. We caught up with Andy to find out why he took this position on the committee and what it means to him:

Why did you decide to take on this role for the Craft Guild of Chefs?
This was a great platform for me to share my experiences but also help create a new culture within our industry, to change the way we talk, the way we help each other and the way we communicate.

Over the last 14 years I have been on my own personal mental health journey and have suffered from depression, to the point where I had to take myself out of the industry for over a year to focus on myself and getting well. It was hard, as I had to cut contact with many friends and work colleagues due to how I was feeling and because I felt like I was letting them down by not coming to work. This time out allowed me to reinvent myself and discover who Andy really is!

I’d like to use my own experience to help others; to support our chefs to know it’s ok not to be ok. The old Andy didn’t know how to talk to people about how he was feeling, but once I did open up, my life changed for the better.

Why do you think there is such a big concern surrounding mental health in hospitality?
Although we are seeing a real effort to change the culture, we still have a long way to go to normalise mental health.

I had a difficult childhood that saw our family moving quite often, so we never seemed to settle down and this had a huge impact on me. I had a real feeling of being loved but very lost. Trying to fit in was difficult and I feel this impacted my own early career. Up until about 10 years ago, I was moving around different jobs, moving demographically, missing out on family special occasions and friend’s birthdays. Basically, I was putting everything into my work and not really thinking about the damage to my mental health later down the line.

In hospitality we do work very hard, sometimes long days, and we are constantly under pressure to deliver a great experience. That’s why we love the industry. However, if we don’t have an outlet for how we are feeling, it all gets bottled up which can mean some may struggle. I do believe the culture is changing though and over recent years, we have seen some big names in the chef world talk about their feelings which is brilliant, but we need to continue to do more for ourselves and actively encourage each other to start the conversation.

We are now much better at checking in on our colleagues and more of us are becoming aware of the signs or changes in behaviour in ourselves and in our colleagues, which gives us an opportunity to take action.

Which initiatives will you be working on in your role with the Guild?
My first job was to create a small committee to support my work as it’s a big task and working together we can achieve so much more. We aim to collaborate with as many universities and colleges as possible to deliver a health food experience that is supported by a talk on mental health. This gives us a great platform to speak to those chefs at the start of their journey. We hope to deliver sessions right across the UK to get everyone talking. Our message will be authentic and will highlight the importance of food and the role it plays in our overall wellbeing, both mentally and physically.

The committee will also be visible at trade shows once they re-start, so our work is seen by as many chefs and friends as possible. We would love chefs to feel they can just come and talk to us about how they are feeling, food has the power to initiate a conversation.

We’ll also be working closely with our charity partners including Kelly’s Case, The Burnt Chef Project, Beyond Food Foundation and others in the industry. We are planning a number of events to bring chefs together, to share their experiences, and help each other through dinners and sporting activities.

What advice do you have for chefs who want to improve their mental health?
Take a step back where you can and ask yourself the questions – how do I really feel? What can I change in my life that is maybe making me feel low and unhappy?

Create a healthy routine with a good balanced diet, get some exercise but most importantly invest some time in YOU, do something that you love outside of work and make time to bring it to life. Invest time in your relationships too, they are special.

Set yourself a challenge, a goal. Maybe there is something that you have always wanted to do but put it off because of work. Having a goal and then putting in a few steps around how you are going to complete it can do wonders for your mind and will inspire you.

Be your authentic self and learn to love you!

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