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‘My head feels full of noise’ - Norfolk chef Charlie Hodson speaks about his battle with mental ill health

PUBLISHED: 11:30 21 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:47 21 May 2018

Charlie Hodson. Picture Adam Livingstone/Woodfordes

Charlie Hodson. Picture Adam Livingstone/Woodfordes

Adam Livingstone/Woodfordes

Norfolk chef, charity fund-raiser and Norfolk Day ambassador Charlie Hodson speaks candidly about his battle with mental ill health and why he’s having to step down from his public roles.

Charlie Hodson supporting Norfolk Day at the Eastern Daily Press and Radio Norfolk launch in Dereham's Market Place. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYCharlie Hodson supporting Norfolk Day at the Eastern Daily Press and Radio Norfolk launch in Dereham's Market Place. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Looking back at my phone history, it was a Tuesday afternoon last November that I searched for ‘the quietest place in Norfolk’. I went there later that night, knowing that it would be hours before my body would be found, by a dog walker perhaps. I can’t say how long I was there, or what exactly stopped me from going through it, though. Maybe it was the thought of my boy.

This week, I’ve been thinking about what led me there. And I’ve finally taken a big step in a new direction – to change my work life and to focus on my mental health and wellbeing instead.

According to the Health & Safety Executives Labour Force Survey, on average 191,000 men a year report stress, depression or anxiety caused or made worse by work. The peak age group is 45-54. In 2015, 75% of all suicides in the UK were male and it’s the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.

The Men’s Health Forum say that men may fail to recognise or act on warning signs and may be unable or unwilling to seek support. This has certainly been the case with me.

I’m physically strong, and people know me, I hope, as someone who throws himself into everything with energy and enthusiasm. But very few know why. That it stems from grief. Back in 2008, I suffered two family tragedies that I never dealt with. I didn’t seek counselling. Instead, I left London and returned to the county my parents loved. It felt good to be home.

I fully embraced Norfolk life, became consumed with commitments, because the busier I was, the less I had time to think. And I certainly left myself no space to feel. One Sunday in 2013, at the height of the summer season, instead of being at my mum’s bedside, I chose to be with 750 people at the Cromer Crab & Lobster festival. My mother passed away that day and I wasn’t there.

In an average working week, I put in 100 hours. Like many people in the hospitality industry, my schedule is punishing. Besides my day job as Executive Head Chef and MD, I’ve taken on many other roles and have felt privileged to do so. My diary for the next two months is filled with exciting events but my head just feels full of noise.

I’m scheduled for chef demonstrations at the Cromer Crab & Lobster and the Reepham Food & Drink festivals, I have to co-host the Art of Butchery at the Royal Norfolk Show, I have to juggle being Patron of AgeSpace and Ormiston Families, run Charlie’s Food Heroes, all the while fulfilling my commitments as a stakeholder at the City of Norwich College. The list goes on and on, but I can’t keep up anymore.

And then last week, during dinner, my best friend noticed something was wrong. Her comment was small - it was just an observation - but enough of one to finally make me recognise that I had to do something. That if I carried on in this direction, I’d be headed back to the quietest place in Norfolk, and maybe for good this time.

So I quit my job. Then this week, I spent hours making phone calls. I spoke with friends, colleagues, and organisers and I cancelled everything. And I was doing something I had never done before: I was telling people why and the response has been overwhelming. Human kindness and understanding from everyone I spoke to. One person even asked why I hadn’t told her sooner. That she wished she could hug me.

Mental health issues are no different than any other life-threatening illnesses. We’re not afraid of telling people if we have cancer, so why do we still struggle with opening up about our inner struggles?

Yes, I know: the stigma, but what I’ve learned is that people will surprise you. That the flat tyre might stop you in your tracks, but with help, you can repair it and get started again.

I want to talk to people in my industry: to the producers, the farmers, the chefs, the students, and so on. But what about you and your industry? As Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close, I feel that sharing my story is the very least a person can do.

In an attempt to do more, I also want to implore you as employers and employees to take the time to ask your friends and colleagues how they’re doing. Instead of another meeting to discuss productivity, get together to prioritise wellbeing. The hospitality world is relentless, but no matter the sector, everyone has a breaking point.

To everyone who has extended their support to me this week, thank you. I’ll carry on championing you and our fantastic county, and hope to work with you again soon.

Charlie would like to encourage you to support the following charities:

The YANA Project: www.yanahelp.org/

Mind Norwich: www.norwichmind.org.uk/

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