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Kat Kinsman is a senior food and drinks editor at the breakfast-focused website Extra Crispy.JEREMY FREEMAN

Two years ago, 45-year-old food writer Kat Kinsman was depressed over the holidays. “I get seasonal affective disorder when it’s dark and cold. I feel worthless,” says Kinsman. Then she learned of a chef who had died by suicide.

Kinsman has covered the food industry – for AOL, CNN and later for buzzy food-focused websites Tasting Table and Extra Crispy – for a decade. She first publicly wrote about her own mental illness back in 2014, and wrote a memoir, Hi Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves. Increasingly, she found herself talking to chefs, both on and off the record, about their own struggles. With long hours, low pay, high pressure and a tough-it-out culture, restaurant life can be hard and exacerbate existing personal or medical problems. On the flip side, Kinsman also says many people fighting depression and anxiety are often drawn into the profession by a creative working environment and flexible schedule, with some seeing it as a career of last resort.

After speaking with so many others, Kinsman thought “I really need to put my money where my mouth is,” she says. “These are people I love. This is a profession I care about.”

So she bought a domain name, drafted a list of emergency resources and helplines, put up an online survey, and the website went live on New Year’s Day, 2016. A closed Facebook group for chefs and other hospitality workers followed soon after. Since then, more than 2,000 cooks and hospitality workers have filled out the survey and the private group has more than 600 members and an active message board: one recent day, there were more than 25 different posts from around the world.

Since then, Kinsman, who is now a senior food and drinks editor at the breakfast-focused website Extra Crispy, has become an outspoken voice around mental-health struggles in the restaurant industry. She will be in Toronto on April 23 for the annual Terroir Symposium at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and spoke to The Globe and Mail about depression, kitchen life, and her issues with the word “crazy.”

What brought you to writing and speaking about mental health in the food industry?

My entire life, I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety and a panic disorder. People close to me knew about the depression, but not so much about the anxiety and the panic because I was really very good at hiding it. When I wrote about my struggles with depression and it went viral, it exploded my life in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I started getting notes back from people, saying, “Oh, my God, me too.” And I thought, “Wait, what is it that I’ve done?”

There are so many people going through this that it’s just a matter of connecting the dots. But because there’s this veneer of macho and toughness, everybody’s standing next to each other on the line and not saying anything.

And do they even have time to fill out a survey?

When I was recovering from surgery for endometriosis last summer, I thought, “You know what? I can take on a certain amount of this, and it’s what I really love – to be useful.” So I put up the Facebook group, and there are over 600 people in that group, all people in the industry. They all support each other in the loveliest way, really. Somebody will say, “I had a tough night on the line. I’m really having a hard time not taking a drink,” or “I’m living in this particular city and working, and I’m having a rough time. Who else is here?” And the other chefs step up and take care of them, and it is the most beautiful, beautiful thing that they’ve all – these are generous, good-hearted people. The wheel turns, because sometimes somebody will be the helper, and sometimes they’re the helped. And there’s no hierarchy. There’s no, “Hey, I’m a master chef, so such-and-such. Listen to me, young sous-chefs!” or whatever. But it’s a level playing field, and people are really open and honest and just really, really generous.

What has it been like to have your work become a conduit for the issue of mental-health struggles in professional kitchens?

There’s a whole chicken-and-egg thing about why mental illness is so rampant in this industry. People are drawn to it because it is not a traditional corporate job, and for some people, kitchen life is what helps them manage. I’ve heard from a lot of people with OCD that the rhythm and structure is so good for them. It keeps them together. I have a friend whose husband has Tourette’s, and he can’t be in a regular office with that, but he can swear his heart out in the kitchen. You’re judged on how well you can cook and be part of this organism, and he’s celebrated for exactly who he is.

That’s the good part of it, but it also exacerbates a lot of tendencies for people who might be prone to substance abuse or all kinds of other things. People deal with it through overeating or undereating or sex – chefs are people of extremes.

Chefs, to be fair, are not necessarily the most emotionally intelligent people in every moment of their lives [particularly given how fast-paced and stressful a restaurant environment can be], right? But nobody is.

Nobody is. We don’t have a vocabulary for this, and this is what maddens me, especially the rhetoric that’s going on in U.S. politics right now. The word “crazy” or “mentally ill” gets bandied about in such a careless fashion that it’s, I think, actively harmful. If I speak to a large group, I tend to get up there and say, “Hi, I’m Kat. I’m a food writer, and I’m mentally ill.” It was really hard to do starting out, but I thought, “I have to push myself past that.” And then I realized it wasn’t the end of the world.

What do you plan to talk about at Terroir?

Embracing the awkward, just going with it, and how to have an awkward conversation, because not everybody’s ready to talk about this. I ran into a situation at a job a while ago where I mentioned that I was going to therapy – like I was actually, physically, going off to a therapy appointment – and my boss sent me a note saying, “Don’t talk about it in the office.” I was like, “What the hell?” I knew I was not long for that job. And I was thinking, “Don’t you know that half the office has come to me for a therapy recommendation?”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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