Rachel Kelly: Author and Mental Health Ambassador
An interview with rachel kelly
Rachel Kelly is a writer, mental health campaigner, and public speaker based in the UK. I had the pleasure of interviewing her about The Happy Kitchen, a book about "good mood food" written with nutritionist, Alice Mackintosh. The book includes loads of evidence-based research, delicious and easy recipes, as well as tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
For the corresponding interview with Alice Mackintosh, click HERE.
Session Notes: Tell me a little about yourself and your story.
Rachel Kelly: My story starts nearly 20 years ago in 1997, when I had my first major depressive episode. I was very unwell with anxiety-driven depression for around 6 months. I got better and I returned to work as a journalist at The Times newspaper. Unfortunately, I had a second major episode, which you may know is very common. It’s a bit like if you break your arm once, you’re more likely to break it a second time. The second time I was ill for much longer, around 2 years.
As I was coming out of the second major episode, I decided that there had to be a better way than just turning to medication, which is still seen as the main treatment. Treatment in the UK is very much a medical-based, pharmaceutical approach with a little bit of therapy (CBT) if you’re lucky. I wanted to build a personal toolkit of other strategies to look after my mental health so I tried lots of different evidence-based things in addition to taking medication short-term. I began practising mindfulness techniques, I did several years of therapy, and I took on some nutritional ideas when I met Alice 5 years ago.
SN: It sounds like you had a really stressful career and lots of things to manage in your personal life at the same time. People tend to rely solely on medication to cope and continue at the same pace without making any other adjustments to their lifestyle. It seems medication is used more and more to sustain a stressful life rather than make necessary changes to lessen the stress.
RK: Exactly. It’s sticking the plaster on top, but it’s not addressing what’s underneath. There are deeper questions that can be asked. You’re right, I had a really demanding and stressful life in a busy newsroom at the time, which was exciting, but these episodes ultimately led to a profound examination of what was drawing me into that kind of lifestyle. I took a step back and asked myself what was really behind this that I would put myself in such a stressful situation. My working life now is very different. Lots of things have shifted.
SN: What led you to a full-body approach to treatment?
RK: I personally just wasn’t happy with being on so much medication. I was having a lot of side effects and I thought maybe there was a way to reduce the medication or only be on it for the short-term while learning positive coping strategies. There are a lot of good studies on how taking medication short-term is helpful, but we don’t seem to know the implications of taking medication long-term, for many years.
It’s basic, really: if you could avoid being on medication for the long-term, why wouldn’t you? I was interested to see if I could build up other approaches. It’s not just about our brains, it’s about our whole bodies. It just makes a lot of sense to me.
SN: It does! My undergraduate degree is in biology, so a talking about how nutrition affects the chemical reactions in the body that influence hormones and the brain really clicks. It’s almost an obvious thing to consider, but not many people do.
RK: Right. My experience of feeling very anxious and depressed was a very physical sensation. I felt very physically unwell. So I thought maybe using a whole-body approach might help.
SN: How did you find Alice? Did someone recommend that you see a nutritionist?
RK: I’ll tell you what happened. I was on this “journey” (dreadful word...) to put together a personal toolkit. I had been using mindfulness and going to therapy which was all very helpful, but one day I went to see my GP and as I was leaving she mentioned happy foods. She shared some interesting research about omega-3s and plant based diets and how they affect mood. I thought it sounded amazing, but she couldn’t really tell me much more because GPs only get 2 hours of nutritional training in the UK. She didn’t feel qualified to give me nutritional advice, so I started researching nutritionists on my own. I knew a little bit about the place where Alice was working at the time. Her approach was broad but it also linked mental health issues like anxiety and depression to nutrition. I booked an appointment and we really clicked. That was the start of a five year journey with Alice. We went through everything: the insomnia, low mood, anxiety, and hormones, and we really looked at the evidence-based connection between those things and nutrition. I started feeling better almost immediately. Together we looked at more than 150 studies, most of which were incorporated into The Happy Kitchen.
SN: How did you and Alice come up with the idea of writing The Happy Kitchen together?
RK: I was already involved with quite a few mental health charities and I felt very strongly that this kind of help and information was not widely available for people. I was lucky because I was able to afford to see Alice and have the time with her that I needed to get better. But I felt that there was quite a lot of ignorance around this topic and people in mainstream NHS care were not getting this kind of advice.
SN: Right. In many cases, it’s an “extra” that’s added on to specific cases for people who have access to those resources.
RK: Yes. But some mainstream psychiatrists are really on top of this. For example, I was in Israel recently and if you see a psychiatrist in Israel, you're likely to see a nutritionist as well. I feel going forward, this will become much more mainstream. Actually, I was working with one psychiatrist, Pratima Singh, at the Maudsely Hospital which is a big NHS psychiatric hospital in London. She’s a big believer in these nutritional ideas and she reckons that the NHS is 17 years behind when it comes to well-being advice of this sort of nature.
I wanted to share how lucky I’d been and how much I’d learnt by writing this book. Nutrition is something you can start straight away, which I feel is such an optimistic message. People are often waiting for appointments, waiting for a doctor to give them medication, or waiting for therapy but this is something that people can start right away. We’ve had wonderful feedback from people saying that it has helped them very quickly.
In addition, the book encourages people to include more variety in their diet, which is a very positive message. Modern western diet only incorporates around 20 ingredients a week, whereas ancestral man ate closer to 150 different ingredients. So we’re not saying ‘cut stuff out’ we’re actually saying add variety, which seems very compelling. There’s nobody in the nutritional or psychiatric world that isn’t saying a more varied diet helps our microbiome.
SN: Alice mentioned that neither of you were chefs when you decided to write The Happy Kitchen. Was it daunting to be writing a cookbook and did you ever feel like you were trying to create a book on a topic that you weren’t an expert in?
RK: It’s true! I wasn’t a great cook, and I’m not a great cook, but in fact I thought that was an advantage. If we could come up with recipes that I could manage, then anyone could manage them.
In each chapter we include a “Feeling Fragile” recipe, which is for the days when you don’t feel like cooking at all. So much of it is about stocking your kitchen with the right things. A lot of the recipes are quick and only take a couple of minutes. I tried out the recipes with some of the groups I was leading at the time. They gave us feedback on whether or not they could follow the recipes. That made me much more confident that a) there was the need for this and b) people could manage our recipes. I also didn’t feel that there was a book out there like this. There were cookbooks and scientific books, but there wasn’t a hybrid of the two.
SN: Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
RK: Well I am a mum, so the one that brings a smile to my children’s faces is the chocolate brownie recipe (“Dark Chocolate Brazil Nut Brownies,” pg 176, shown above). The brownies use dark chocolate, spelt flour, nuts, and a small amount of maple syrup. They’re so easy and delicious. There’s a lot of evidence around the benefits of dark chocolate so those are a big hit.
Also I think the red cabbage recipe is really easy (“Best Ever Red Cabbage,” pg 111). You have to make sure you have a little bit of time because it cooks for a half an hour, but it includes an onion, red cabbage, apple cider vinegar which is great for digestion, blackberries, and apples. It’s delicious and so, so easy.
SN: We’re about to spend a few days focusing on self-care and we’re making a list of self- care practices to share on Session Notes. What are your favorite ways to practice self-care?
RK: Breathing work. When I was unwell and in the psychiatric hospital, I was either worried about the future or I was regretting the past. Essentially, I wasn’t in the moment. I know this might sound really obvious, but the thing about breathing is you can only do it right now. You can’t breathe in the past and you can’t breathe in the future.
The technique I use the most is probably belly breathing. You place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. The hand on your chest keeps still and only the hand on your stomach moves. It’s so easy and it means that you get into diaphragmatic, slow breathing which kind of overrides your head when you get anxious. Sometimes you feel like you can’t control what’s going on in your head, but breathing techniques and nutrition take it out of your own control and your body does the work for you.
The other self-care practice I use a lot is probably gratitude. I started this about 5 years ago, and I could probably think of 8 or 9 things I was thankful for, but now, on a good day I can get to about 20.
SN: Oh that’s a great one! And it really does take practice.
RK: Yes, and the more you do it, the more you find you’re grateful for. You change the neural pathways over time and you’re laying down a new way of looking at things. You’re creating a habit of being grateful and it really works.
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