"It just started to spiral." Why Brent Draper chose to leave MasterChef.

Article in Mamamia.com.au - Monday 15th June 2021

For the first time in MasterChef Australia history, a contestant chose to leave the competition. 

On Sunday night, fan favourite Brent Draper - a boilermaker from the Queensland town of Beaudesert - announced he was voluntarily leaving the cooking competition to focus on his mental health. 

"I've just got nothing left," he told judge Jock Zonfrillo during the elimination challenge.

His decision shocked fellow contestants, the judges and audiences watching at home. But Brent had been struggling with his mental health even before earning his place in the cooking competition. 

"It probably [started] way before the show," Brent told Mamamia. "And you know, as men, not really dealing with things, [I was] sort of brushing over things."

During filming, a few things made it worse.

"My mum had a bit of a health scare before MasterChef filming and a passing in the family during, then quarantine twice. But one of the biggest things was homesickness. Just missing out on little things that [my two-year-old son] Alfie was learning," Brent said.

"One of the biggest [filming] stints we did was about seven weeks, I think. And quarantine, it's not a great place for people - no fresh air, not great food, no human interaction and 14 days is pretty long."

"It [my mental health] just started to spiral. There's obviously pressure in the kitchen - that's what makes it so great - but I didn't deal with things and it snowballed," he said.

Brent's anxiety manifested in physical symptoms. He started feeling unwell in his stomach, prompting him to google his symptoms. He thought he had liver disease. 

"My mind just couldn't get out. I wasn't thinking logically anymore," he told Mamamia.

While other people in his life knew it was anxiety, he couldn't look past the physical symptoms.

"My wife and other people outside me, they could see it was anxiety, and they kept telling me, but I was like, 'you're not feeling what I'm feeling. I'm sick.' 

"I went to the doctors, I went to acupuncture, and I ended up in an emergency. It would help for a little while and then it would cripple me again. Then I'd have sleepless nights and panic attacks during the middle of the night - that's just the loneliest place," he said.

While Brent left MasterChef to focus on his mental health, he didn't believe the show played a large role in his mental health declining. 

"It just heightened everything for me," he said. "The pressure's there but I wasn't dreading the cooking. I was actually dreading the nighttime."

After Brent's final cook, Jock pulled him aside for a chat. Jock - who has been open about his own anxiety - gave Brent his worry beads, knowing exactly what he was going through. 

"Jock actually rang me the other day to tell me that [moment] was real, that was me and him, 100 per cent," Brent told Mamamia.

"I knew that because when I was in that moment, I could see the pain in his eyes. He's obviously very open about his anxiety and how he deals with it so he could see that I was not well a few cooks, probably a few weeks before [I left]," he said.

Brent also made "lifelong mates" during the competition - contestants Justin, Amir and Pete - who helped him through this tough period. 

"I made lifelong mates," he said. "They were the guys that were talking me off the ledge (not literally), really helping me out and at the same time, they were going through some struggles too. 

"We were there for each other and that was really good."

After Brent left the competition, he returned home. He saw his doctor, who told him he wasn't dying from liver disease, and saw a psychologist to help him deal with his anxiety. 

He's also been doing "all the good things for the soul": "surfing, seeing mates, quality family time, cooking, cold showers, meditation," he said.

Since getting professional guidance, Brent's found a few tools that help him manage his anxiety.

"The biggest thing is understanding it's just a thought or just a feeling," he said. "There's no proof it's real. And just detaching it from me before it snowballs and debilitates you. 

"And understanding that it was anxiety I was feeling, because I didn't know growing up. You know, country town, footy boys. It doesn't get talked about like it is now. Especially being a tradie," he said.

Brent also has advice for anyone struggling, or knows someone who's struggling, with mental health.

"If you see something in one of your mates or you're feeling something, chat to them, talk to them," he said. "Talk to your partner, your wife, your husband, your boyfriend, girlfriend, your family, just like letting it out and telling someone starts the ball rolling."

"Just knowing that you're not weak by letting it out, you're not. I'm 100 times stronger, I can talk to people now, I can open up," he said.

"If you're not speaking it, you're storing it, and storing it gets heavy."