To those brought up on a TV diet of “Masterchef”, “Chopped” and Gordon Ramsay, the kitchen might not seem like the most naturally therapeutic environment. Even for the most stalwart of cooks, angry swearing Scotsmen are enough to reduce anyone to tears. But, beyond the histrionics of celebrity cooking, domestic kitchens can be an essential oasis of calm for anyone struggling with their mental health.
After a long day in the office, or a particularly traumatic personal experience, there are few things more satisfying than taking a long, sharp knife to something small and helpless. All cooking is inherently mindful. Preparing produce, measuring ingredients and immersing yourself in a recipe is, for a great many people, one of the most effective ways to unwind and relax. Speaking from personal experience, making food is about more than nourishing the body. The brain needs some love too.
Until recently, the therapeutic qualities of cooking were largely individual. If you happened to discover the potential mental health benefits by yourself, you were one of the lucky ones. There was little professional advice linking food to mental wellbeing, beyond the long established relationship with nutrients and diet. Now, this is starting to change.
Over the last few years, an increasing number of organisations have committed themselves to exploring and establishing cooking as a prescriptive therapy treatment. This new Culinary Arts Therapy (CAT) movement is winning recognition around the world, as more people begin to recognise the value of spending time at the stove.
Therapists and clinics are beginning to agree that cooking a meal can be used to treat a variety of different patients, ranging from those who struggle with substance abuse, to those living with eating disorders. According to leading CAT advocate Julie Ohana, it is most effective in treating those suffering from “depression, anxiety and grief”. In an interview conducted with the Huffington Post last year, Ohana stated that, “The ability to step outside of certain thoughts or actions, even if it is just for an hour or so can provide tremendous relief.”
Despite CAT’s ever increasing popularity, the actual science behind the notion of “cooking as medicine” is still a little sketchy. Reporting in the Wall Street Journal, writer Jeanne Whalen wrote that a study from the UK showed that a class of students in a mental health clinic saw their self confidence and mental wellbeing improve after participating in baking lessons. Though this research was by no means conclusive, it does at least seem to offer some support to the CAT model.
For the first time as a society, we are beginning to fully appreciate the raft of mental health challenges that we all face each and every day. Mental wellbeing is slowly moving away from a social taboo and towards a respected and valued part of modern life. It’s becoming clear to everyone that staying mentally well is just as important as being physically healthy. For some, cooking will be the last thing that will help. For others, however, it might be what makes the difference between suffering in silence and starting on the road to recovery. What is clear is that food is becoming increasingly important, in more ways than one.