Recent events in the restaurant industry have reminded us all of the fragility of life and the vulnerability we carry with us throughout each day. Although the overwhelming majority of us working in the restaurant industry didn’t personally know Anthony Bourdain, we certainly felt like we did courtesy of his provocative, thought-provoking commentaries exploring the links between food and community. The news of his untimely death has reverberated loudly.
Bourdain’s passion was palpable. He relished in the adventure of tracking down what at first seemed like far-flung delicacies, but were often simple, every day foods for the people preparing them. He was the teller of stories that deserved to be heard. And his open-armed acceptance of cultures and their historical cuisines has certainly inspired kitchen chefs everywhere — both professionally and at home. He was the epitome of living life out loud, of connecting with others and being in the moment.
While we may never understand why Anthony’s life ended like it did, it reminds us that we also never know exactly what anyone is going through, thinking, or feeling; if they are being pelted by waves of depression, trying to fend off mental illness, suicidal thoughts, alcoholism, or substance abuse. And while celebrity deaths due to suicide receive significant media coverage, it’s likely that we all personally know and love someone who has been impacted by mental health issues, addiction, or suicide. Even more disheartening, we probably know twice as many people who remain suffering in silence.
So what can we do? We can empathize, we can start a dialogue, we can choose to learn more about these devastating diseases — learn to identify the signs, the subtle calls for help. Push for mental health reform and wider access to counseling, medications, and treatments for addiction. Ultimately, we can remove the stigma and begin to create meaningful and lasting change.
And for us in the restaurant industry, there may be no greater place to start honing our efforts than with our own colleagues. It’s time to acknowledge the growing mental health and addiction epidemic tearing its way through our nation’s restaurants.
The restaurant industry operates differently from many others. Given the late-night and weekend hours, the long shifts, the fast-paced, high stress work environment, and the availability of free-flowing alcohol, it can take a physical and emotional toll on employees’ bodies and minds.
This is especially true for employees who are already overwhelmed and stressed by daily life, those who may be just barely getting by, working multiple jobs, or trying to reintegrate into society or navigate a new country. And restaurants are often staffed with employees just like this. From single moms to immigrants to ex-felons — the inclusion of whom makes this industry extraordinarily diverse, accepting, and a place I’m proud to call home — the combination of these factors and the lack of a reliable safety net undoubtedly affects their mental health and well-being.
Let’s be clear. When I say employees, this includes everyone in the industry from hostesses to chefs to general and multiunit managers. While we may be able to identify vulnerable staff members, no one is immune. Owner-operators can succumb to the pressures of running a restaurant — plagued by the weight of staffing issues, tight budgets, and the emotional and financial fallout created by poor online reviews or negative social media attention. The reach of mental illness, depression, addiction, and hopelessness knows no bounds.
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), those working in hospitality and food services have the highest rates of substance abuse disorders — at approximately 17 out of every 100 full-time employees. Nearly 20 percent of full-time industry employees are involved in illicit drug use and heavy alcohol use is a prominent issue affecting roughly 12 percent of employees.
Research suggests that there is a six-fold increase in suicide attempts by individuals dealing with a substance abuse disorder and more than 90 percent of people who commit suicide are depressed, have or substance abuse disorder, or both. Moreover, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans aged 15-34, a demographic that makes up a substantial portion of food service employees.
Unfortunately, lack of insurance coverage, hectic work schedules, and busy personal lives can all prevent people from seeking help. Those struggling with alcohol or substance abuse, depression, suicidal ideation, and mental illness may also feel ashamed and afraid to reach out, worried that they will lose their jobs or their circle of friends, in large part, due to the stigma that has surrounded these topics for far too long.
But where there is light, there cannot be darkness. We must shine the light on mental health and addiction in order to illuminate an alternative path forward for all those afflicted.
Over the past few years, many in the restaurant industry have become more aware of how life in the business can impact employees’ well-being. Out of necessity to generate hope and initiate change, several organizations have popped up, offering assistance, support, and encouragement to our colleagues.
Some are designed specifically for restaurant workers, while others are open to anyone in need of help. What’s important to remember is that some of our most troubled friends, family members, and coworkers simply aren’t able to take the first step toward recovery, so we must support each other and actively seek ways to help and become involved. These organizations below are a great starting point.
Chefs with Issues: Founded by Kat Kinsman, a food writer and editor who has suffered from mental illness herself, the organization seeks to bring awareness to the abundance of mental health issues facing restaurant workers. She invites others to share their stories and provides critical resources, including a mental health survey. Her tagline says it best, “For the care and feeding of the people who feed us.”
Ben’s Friends: A support group for the food and beverage industry, founded in memory of Ben Murray, a Charleston, South Carolina, chef who took his own life after struggling with alcoholism. The group holds weekly meetings in North and South Carolina as well as Georgia and “exists to provide a safe haven and an anonymous, judgment-free forum.”
Big Table: Based in Washington State, Big Table’s mission is to “see the lives of those working in the restaurant and hospitality industry transformed by building community around shared meals and caring for those who are in crisis, transition, or falling through the cracks.” They host quarterly, free dinners for workers in need.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: A free 24/7 resource offering confidential support and crisis care for those experiencing suicidal thoughts as well as their family members. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a representative or visit their website for an online chat option.
Mental Health America: As a community-based nonprofit active in 41 states, MHA focuses on providing preventive and interventional mental health treatments and support as part of an overall wellness strategy. Visit their website to find a local affiliate.
Crisis Text Line: A texting service that provides free, 24/7 crisis support. To connect with a trained crisis counselor, text HOME to 741741. Help is also available by contacting the organization through messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and Kik.
Employee Assistance Programs: Many employers offer employee assistance programs, which among other things, provide free, short-term, and confidential counseling as well as referrals to other providers and long-term treatment options. Detailed information can usually be found in the employee handbook, benefits package documentation, or posted in the employee breakroom or central messaging area. Patient confidentiality is maintained, although general demographic data may be aggregated and reported to employers regarding the type and frequency of services utilized.
My goal here is to bring even more light to the mental health and addiction issues affecting so many of our restaurant employees and open a discussion about what we all — as operators, managers, coworkers, customers, and fellow human beings — can do to lift each other out of the fog.
This is the start of a much-needed conversation. One that I hope you’ll all join.
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