Sunday night was a first for MasterChef Australia: a contestant of the blockbuster reality show chose to leave of their own accord.
Lovable boilermaker Brent Draper – he of the magnificent beard, ugly-delicious fried food and surprise chocolate tempering skills – had been left in a dark place by a combination of the pressures of the show and the separation from his family. As he told judge Jock Zonfrillo: “I’ve just got nothing left.”
By the end of the episode, Draper had quit the competition, leaving his fellow contestants and the judges in tears.
When Lifeline’s details appeared shortly before the credits rolled, the weekly theatre of whose “plate up” was most impressive paled into insignificance.
“The last few weeks of my time in the competition, I was really struggling mentally and physically,” Draper told Guardian Australia on Sunday. “I was struggling to sleep and having a lot of panic attacks during the night. It really started to show; even though I was trying my hardest to mask it, those around me knew I wasn’t OK.”
Though there is professional support available behind the scenes, Draper added: “My best support came from my fellow contestants, the judges and, most of all, my wife.”
Mental health is not a fixed state – but Draper said he was doing better now back home.
“I’m stoked to say I’m feeling like I’m back on track and through the thick of it,” he said over email. “I’ve spent the last couple of months seeing a psychologist, my doctor, and doing the things I love that ground me like surfing, spending time with [wife] Shonleigh and [baby] Alfie, cooking and eating food with my mates.”
It’s a sobering reminder for those who engage in “it’s just TV” discourse that the pressures that go into making a show like MasterChef can be very real.
“What we go through emotionally and mentally on this show is massively underestimated,” Draper said. “People put their entire lives on hold for this, they leave their children and their newborn babies and their partners and jobs to chase something that most people will never be able to have a crack at in their lives.”
Draper’s exit from the show comes at a time when heightened awareness of mental health is again in the headlines, from Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open through to the “panic” and fear felt by Victorian hospitality workers living through another Covid-19 lockdown. A 2020 study by union Hospo Voice found that 91% of hospitality workers were worried about mental health in the industry.
“I think that the buck really does stop with each individual person,” Draper said. “We need to ask our workmates if they’re OK if we can see they aren’t. Especially in the food and hospitality industry, where it’s a team sport, it’s a team effort; on the footy field everyone’s got each other’s back, so why should it be any different in the kitchen?”
The fact of Draper’s self-professed “battler tradie” persona leaves him in a unique position to be able to act as a role model to other blokes who might be struggling. As judge Melissa Leong put it in Sunday’s episode: “These conversations ... will matter to so many people.”
Draper said: “I don’t feel weak or soft for saying I’m not OK and putting my hand up. If anything I feel stronger. It’s so easy to talk to your mates about the footy score or about work but when it comes to talking about what’s really going on in our heads, it’s so hard. But after asking for help and getting it, it’s really changed my perspective.
“A mate recently said to me, ‘If you’re not speaking it, you’re storing it, and storing it gets heavy’, and I hope that hits home for all the fellas out there.”
Draper advises anyone who might be struggling with depression or anxiety: “If you can, just put your hand up; talk to a friend or a family member. But if you can’t do that or you don’t want to do that, go and see your doctor and be brutally honest with them about how you’re feeling. It ain’t weak to speak.”
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.