Pilot Light: let’s talk about mental health

As a chef for over a decade, Doug Sanham struggled with a dissociative disorder in the kitchen that drove him to blackouts and attempted suicide. Now he runs Pilot Light – a campaign committed to raising awareness and changing perceptions of mental health in hospitality.

I have been a chef for nearly thirteen years now. I started off as a pot wash and starter section chef, working in a pub in Bridge – a small village outside of Canterbury. Being a chef wasn’t the goal – I was learning to be a physiotherapist at the time – but the more I learnt, the more I became obsessed over learning. After a year at college, I left to work as a chef full-time.

I have worked all over the South East and East Anglia since then. I’ve done a bit of everything, from gastropubs to grand country manor houses, fine dining to private events. By the time I turned twenty-seven, I was head chef of The Beacon in Tunbridge Wells. I had just won an Acorn Award from The Caterer as one of their thirty under thirty up-and-coming hospitality talents. My life on the surface seemed to be going smoothly, but underneath, I was struggling. I had been struggling for years.

I suffer with a type of dissociative disorder. If I’m dealing with a lot of stress or emotional pain, my brain creates a mental block to shut it out and allow me to carry on. I can’t say where or when it started, but it seems to be something I developed when I was young.

I first had a real episode of this when I was twenty-one, a little before my twenty-second birthday. I thought I was still asleep, but in reality I was awake – I had got out of bed and started cleaning the staff accommodation where I used to live. Then I started drinking. Then I started to take every bit of medication I could find. The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital bed, confused and sick, with my family around me. My head chef had come looking for me when I hadn’t turned up for my shift and found me unconscious, with alcohol and pill packets around me – I had been texting and communicating with people, but I had no memory of anything that had happened. It was like I had been in a dream.

My head chef was supportive, but he was the only one who was. I was told by the general manager and HR director that I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone at work about what had happened. I had three weeks away from work, then returned as though I’d been away on holiday. To my team, I had left them struggling, short-staffed for three weeks and come back with no reason why. I had let them down, and they hated me for it.

Over the years of having dissociative episodes, I’ve come to realise that the real impact is after the event. From my experience – and also having spoken to others working front and back of house – the attitude to mental health, too often, is resentment that the person who has been away from work has let down the team.

This is a serious problem. My dissociative episodes have come with attempts of suicide. Yes, I am still here, but the idea that I had let my team down was very mentally damaging in itself. If I had broken my leg, I would have received more understanding, more support. Our industry needs to look at itself and realise, we have a responsibility to each other. This is a tough industry – tiring, physically and mentally demanding, often low-paid. Mental health is at the heart of what we do, and our industry is dwindling because we haven’t respected that.

When I became a head chef, I saw how many of us struggled with mental health issues. Like my head chef years ago, I understood but didn’t know how to help. I wanted to wake up the industry – to shine a light on the problems and say, ‘look – this is a thing. It doesn’t make us weak, it doesn’t make us rubbish at our jobs, and with a little more support we can enjoy what we do, keep these awesome staff in our teams and make the industry more sustainable.’

I applied for the Acorn Scholarship in 2016, to try and find a way to create something that could change the way Mental Health was being perceived in the industry. I didn’t win in the end, but it was the start of something positive. I sent emails out everywhere, to every mental health and hospitality charity I could find. The message from most of them was clear – this wasn’t on their current agenda.

But then I met Andrew [Clarke, co-founder of Pilot Light]. He had had similar experiences as a chef dealing with his own mental health – we both wanted to drive awareness and prevention of mental health issues in the hospitality industry. We set up Pilot Light for this reason – to burn the stigma around mental health and ignite an open, honest conversation about the issues that so many of us had.

Pilot Light has grown into so much more than just a platform for raising awareness. We work closely with some huge and wonderful people – we’ve run events at PX Plus festival for two years in a row, and we hold free monthly talks at Trade in London. Andrew and I are both regulars on panel discussions at trade shows and other food events, like National Chef of the Year. We work closely with groups like SoHo House to help them support their staff, and we’re currently designing bespoke mental health awareness and resilience training programmes for front-of-house and back-of-house professionals, to help give staff all the way through the system the tools to look after themselves and those around them. We’re also very active in helping with mental health first aid and we hold lots of workshops where we work directly with teams to help them understand how mental health issues can arise and how to approach them.

Ultimately, we just want to give back to the industry and make it a better place to work. Andrew and I are part of this industry – we understand from experience what it is like. Through Pilot Light we have been able to help lots of people like ourselves who have been through similar experiences, and given them a platform to speak openly about their stories. If you feel as though you might be struggling with the mental side of the job, or you want to learn more about Pilot Light, we would urge you to get in touch.

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We cannot do this alone! Together, we can create a community of like-minded professionals united by a common cause: to shine a light on these issues and act as a beacon of support to those affected by them.

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