Food for thought

The fragrant aromas of coriander and red onion and the sound of excited chatter fills the air. The group sitting at the table discuss their plans for the upcoming weekend. Between clinking forks and mouthfuls of Rogan Josh curry, one says he might go fishing. 

But this isn’t just a casual catch up at your local Indian restaurant. Rather, the group sitting at the table on the sunny veranda of the Swan View Youth Centre at Brown Park has spent the past couple of hours lovingly preparing an Indian feast from scratch as part of the cooking group run by the Mental Illness Fellowship of Western Australia. 

With 4 million Australians experiencing a mental illness or behavioural condition, an increasing number of people are turning to cooking as part of their therapy. 

Step 1: Gather your friends and family

The Mental Illness Fellowship of Western Australia run cooking groups where participants living with a mental illness learn about cooking healthy, fuss-free, nutritious meals. The program, now in its 16th series, runs for four weeks and is free for eligible participants who have a National Disability Insurance Scheme plan. MIFWA cooking group coordinator Joyce Vidot says the cooking group provides a space for those living with a mental illness to learn social interaction skills and develop new friendships. 

“Cooking brings people together,” Vidot says.  

“People that live with social isolation are making connections and making new friends.”

MIFWA cooking group participant Marcus agrees, saying the group gives him something to look forward to each week. He likes it so much he continues to come back each series, along with his fellow cooking group participants Christopher, Gregory and Stephen. 

According to Heads Up, maintaining healthy relationships can help support good mental health, while social isolation and poor relationships can be risk factors for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

MIFWA cooking group participant Stephen says he enjoys meeting others. He begins recounting a recent trip to Nandos, placing his hands over his face and shaking his head. His friends gather on the comfortable couches facing a table filled with ANZAC biscuits and coffee cups. “Nope. I’m never, ever eating chilli again. It was too spicy for me.” Stephen tells the group he couldn’t stop coughing and his face was red and sweaty. He says he’s not eating the curry they’re making today if it has chilli in it.

Vidot then interrupts the group and offers a positive light to the situation. She explains how one bad experience doesn’t guarantee another. 

“You shouldn’t coat everything with the same brush. It’s important to try new things,” she says.

It is this type of encouragement and social connection that participants take away from the group. Being able to tell stories and engage with other people is very enriching. It also establishes a sense of belonging, which is important for mental wellbeing. 

Headspace group work coordinator Jennifer Jamieson agrees, saying having a community of people around you and being able to share a meal can be very affirming. Jamieson runs cooking groups in Perth as part of the Headspace Early Psychosis Program which supports young people experiencing, or at risk of developing psychosis. The program focuses on early intervention, providing young people and their families with timely access to specialist support. Jamieson says the cooking groups are very beneficial. Some participants even stay chatting for over an hour and a half after the group has finished. 

“Cooking is just a very successful way to bring anyone together,” Jamieson says. 

“Anyone who is stigmatised and isolated in the community are coming together, cooking and sharing a meal together, which is incredibly positive.”

Step 2: Be creative

While participants of the cooking groups rate the social benefits to be the most enjoyable, they are also learning important life skills such as mathematics, time management and problem-solving abilities. The cooking groups also provide participants the chance to be creative with their food.

According to research published by The Journal of Positive Psychology, spending time on creative goals is associated with higher positive psychological functioning and a flourishing well-being. 

Christopher, a cooking group veteran, tells the group how he was making pizza one night for himself and his son, but he didn’t have enough ham for both pizzas. He looked in the fridge and found some fish, so he improvised and made a seafood pizza instead. His eyes gleam as he eagerly awaits a reaction from the group. “I was so surprised. It was one of the best pizzas I’d ever had.” 

The MIFWA cooking group provides a safe space for those living with a mental illness to proudly share their achievements with others. Once a week, Swan View Youth Centre at Brown Park comes alive with laughter, wide smiles and the sound of sizzling spices. For many, like Christopher, the setting helps boost creativity and provides inspiration for meals in their everyday lives. 

The creative juices begin flowing freely as the cooking group progresses. Another participant Gregory begins rolling off so many food ideas. “We could make stuffed dumplings!” he says. 

Step 3: Practice mindfulness

But it’s not just the social or creative benefits of cooking that can lead to improved mental health. US-based social worker Julie Ohana says she always knew cooking had emotional benefits, but it wasn’t until she studied a Master of Social Work that she realised cooking could be used as therapy in clinical practice. Ohana explains cooking provides a way to practice mindfulness. She calls the process ‘Culinary Art Therapy’

“Culinary Art Therapy uses cooking as the tool to be able to help people,” she says.

“In my practice, this could mean one on one with an individual who needs emotional support around a specific issue that they face, or it could mean working with a family to teach them better communication, or just how to enjoy spending time all together.”

While Culinary Art Therapy hasn’t yet gained widespread traction in a clinical setting in Australia, people across the country have been using cooking as therapy in their homes for years. Perth hospitality worker Kelly Ha says in times of stress, she often finds herself turning to the kitchen. Ha finds the process of watching simple ingredients like flour and butter turn into something beautiful to be highly therapeutic. In fact, she likes baking so much she started her own business, Bake Ha, selling homemade baked goods for the soul.

Kelly Ha bakes a range of sweet treats. Photo: Kelly Ha.

“I like how it’s very methodical. You literally just follow the recipe. All you think about is the ingredients and how much you need,” she says.

Ha says she’s grown up watching her mum, who lives with a mental illness, cook every day in the kitchen. 

“I think it just reminds her she’s still there as a person,” Ha says. 

Ha now follows suit, saying she turns to baking when she has a lot going on in life and wants her mind to focus on just one thing.

Ohana explains this process is calming for those experiencing mental stress because cooking provides a way for people to really live in the moment. 

“Turning off all the background noise of life and really tuning in to something specific that is beneficial for an individual as well as anyone else they might be cooking for,” she says.

Step 4: Look after your second brain

While the physical process of cooking has a range of benefits for mental health, the foods we put into our body can also make a significant impact on the way we feel. According to the Food and Mood Centre, a nutritional psychiatry research institute at Deakin University, there are many complex ways in which what we eat influences our brain, mood, and mental health. While treatments for mental illness requires a holistic approach, nutritional psychiatry is a growing industry focusing on a good quality diet as an important and practical way to promote good mental health. 

If you are taking the time to cook your own meals, you are more likely to be conscious of what foods are entering your body. This can help provide better quality nutrition than takeaway foods which are commonly high in fat, salt and sugar. 

Recent research has found diets higher in plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and lean proteins, including fish, are related to a reduction in the risk of depression. In contrast, diets that include more processed foods and sugary products are associated with an increased risk of depression. 

This comes as no surprise, with the gut commonly referred to as the second brain, it makes sense the foods we eat has a significant impact on the way we feel. 

Joyce Vidot says she is a big believer in healthy gut, healthy mind. When running the MIFWA cooking group, she often discusses probiotics and is considering running a fermentation class. Jennifer Jamieson says they also educate participants about nutrition when running the cooking groups for the Early Psychosis Program. 

“All the recipes use healthier options. Rather than use sour cream for a dip we use Greek yoghurt, for example,” Jamieson says.

According to Vidot though, many people who live with a mental illness live in psychiatric hostels, which she says do not always serve healthy meals themselves.

“I would like to see government more involved in helping people to eat healthier. We’re all very judgemental in the fact that we say people with mental illness eat rubbish. I’d like to see more education around that.” Vidot says. 

Step 5: Enjoy yourself

Jamieson says functional recovery for mental illness is all about giving people confidence and teaching them life skills. Many people who come through mental illness programs have been unwell for a long time and have lost healthy eating habits due to a variety of reasons, including medication side effects. But what she says is most notable about cooking is that it is incredibly affirming to be with other people in a safe and supportive space. Completing everyday tasks, such as cooking, reminds people that they are not alone. 

“Any culture in the world comes together with food, so it’s very normalising,” Jamieson says.

“Cooking is a human activity. We need to eat, and we enjoy eating. Food is just such a normal, human part of life.”

If you or anyone you know needs mental health support services, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.