10 Ways Restaurant Staff Can Protect Their Mental Health Through the Pandemic
When Lauren Paylor, a mixologist at the Silver Lyan in Washington, D.C., was laid off at the end of March, she began feeling lost, aimless, and untethered.
“It was really difficult,” said Paylor, who had dealt with anxiety and depression before. “I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to keep myself occupied and I was getting depressed. I knew I needed to figure it out.”
Unemployment stands at crippling rates across the country, and virtual visits to mental health professionals are on the rise. More than half of adults in the U.S. report that the life changes required to weather the pandemic are negatively affecting their mental health, according to a July Kaiser Family Foundation poll. For online health appointment scheduler Zocdoc, patients seeking appointments for video visits with mental health professionals are choosing new providers at a 25 percent higher rate than other health care specialties, indicating many in the U.S. are seeking mental health services for the very first time.
“The restaurant industry has been hard hit from all sides,” said Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, a psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance, a behavioral health company based in Bellevue, Washington. “They have the financial loss, but also for restaurant owners there is that sense of obligation to their employees and the feeling like they are letting their extended family down.”
To support the health and wellness of hospitality workers, Paylor and her friend Alex Jump, a bartender from Denver who has also struggled with anxiety and depression, founded Focus on Health, which creates free virtual content, including webinars, podcasts, toolkits, and resources that help promote physical, mental, and financial health. It incorporates mindful drinking with sponsored brands, hosts programs with therapists, and encourages yoga, meditation, and reiki.
Paylor said the response has been overwhelming. “People will often reach out and just say, ‘I really love what y’all are doing. You have no idea how much this has helped me,’” she said. “We realized it would be impactful, but when people reach out and actively tell you how much you help them, it makes you feel really good.”
FOH is just one of several relatively new organizations that cropped up to support the mental health and wellness of hospitality industry workers. There’s also Chefs With Issues, founded by food writer Kat Kinsman as a forum for the industry to share stories and resources for dealing with mental health; Ben’s Friends, a food and beverage industry support group for professionals who struggle with substance abuse and addiction founded in honor of Ben Murray, a chef who committed suicide after struggling with alcoholism; Restaurant After Hours, which provides referrals for mental health and virtual support groups; and Cooks Who Care, a Philly-based organization founded by chefs Maria and Scott Campbell that prioritizes physical, mental, and financial health.
Even the National Restaurant Association has gotten involved in supporting mental health since the pandemic. It partnered with UnitedHealth Group to put together a robust selection of free mental health resources for all restaurant industry employees.
One of the most inventive programs to address the hospitality industry’s mental health crisis is A Sip of Paradise, a community garden based in Atlanta. This gardening-as-therapy program was started in January 2020 by Keyatta Parker, a bartender at Bon Ton who had farmed a small parcel of land with her husband before the pandemic. She entered the idea for A Sip of Paradise in Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender Contest, describing a place of refuge for bartenders to build community, plant, harvest, and share food.
While she didn’t win the contest, she managed to fund her program through grants and began welcoming bartender-farmers in January, before the pandemic hit. But when it did, the garden quickly became a safe space of healing, especially for people of color during the days following the murder of George Floyd. “We used it to escape sitting at home, being on the phone, or tied to the TV,” Parker said. “We had a race war down here and it was really hard. The tension was thick. We would come to the garden in our hoodies and headphones just to escape the noise and sit.”
The garden, now a registered nonprofit, has 34 members who pay $25 per season for a plot to farm. “If I didn’t have this place, I know I would lose it,” she said. “You have that sense of accomplishment when you put a seed in the ground and it grows. You are outside and talking across the plots to each other. It’s a place that’s ours. It has saved a lot of lives. I feel like it saved mine.”
To help navigate the new normal, we spoke to some therapists who shared several suggestions to keep in your mental health toolkit. A list of free and sliding scale mental health resources follows.
1. Take it day by day
While long-term planning and goal setting for the future are usually healthy, for now, experts say take a step back and take it day by day. “It’s so important to try to be in the moment,” Patel-Dunn said. “The dismal long-term outlook is just too hard. We all like to look down the pike and see what’s coming next, but there is too much uncertainty to safely do that now.”
2. Commit to structure and routine
“We are all at home and every day is Saturday,” Patel-Dunn said. While this may sound lovely, it’s actually not very good for your anxiety level. “When you feel you have no control over your life, or what’s happening to your business, or the world around you, you have to gain control over what you can. Setting up a daily routine and structure helps with that sense of control.”
Patel-Dunn recommends adhering to the same bedtime and wake-up time, setting a schedule, and making lists of what you will do each day, such as allocating time to spend on your job search, on your resume, or on networking. She also recommends you try to get some exercise and time outside.
3. Limit media
Limiting exposure to the news is imperative. Patel-Dunn said this is especially important before bedtime, when the news rush can disturb your sleep. “It is so easy to become overwhelmed with the volume of news. The media feeds your anxiety. Scrolling through Twitter is not helpful. Try to set a time limit and turn everything off an hour before bed.”
4. Be kind to yourself
“As an industry that is always overworking and producing, it can be hard and painful to have all that grind to an abrupt halt,” said Laura Louise Green, a therapist and former hospitality industry professional who started Healthy Pour in early 2020 to support mental health in the food and beverage industry. “You need to take care of yourself, and that means having empathy for yourself,” she said.
“It’s important to accept and understand that there will be down days and up days. There will be days when you get stuff done and others when you don’t. “It’s OK to not have all the answers right now and it’s OK to not know what to do. Acknowledge that you don’t know the answers,” Green said. “Embrace the fact that you are in a space that is unknown. We may not know what to do and we may not know what comes next, but with that uncertainty that comes potential and possibility.”
5. Honor your sobriety
Patel-Dunn said she has seen many people in the restaurant industry who are understandably relapsing. She recommends making connections online for support and continuing to attend AA or NA meetings virtually. “Remember to use the tools that helped you get sober and recover,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to reach out for help from your community or a healthcare professional.”
6. Connect with friends
Given that we are all more socially distant, it’s important to reconnect and maintain relationships as much as possible, whether that’s virtually or for a masked walk or bike ride. “Talking to friends and family is and sharing what you are going through can be really valuable,” Patel-Dunn said. “Maybe you never struggled before, but just talking to people about it and not being shy to reach out and share what is going on with you will help you feel better.”
7. Practice asking for help
“Something that we are notoriously terrible about in our industry is asking for help,” Green said. “Get a buddy and practice asking for help, even if it’s something simple like, ‘Can you help me make a playlist?’ or ‘Can you help me find a great recipe?’ Just practice asking for help so when you need it, you can find the words and you have your go-to person.”
8. Self-care is different for everyone
“Coping is not one-size-fits-all,” Green said. “Exercise is great for some people, but for others, it’s a chore. Same with meditation; it may not work for you.” Green said to take the time and think about what makes you feel good. Knitting? Biking? Screaming into a pillow? Binge-watching Schitt’s Creek? Boxing? Piano? Gardening? “Think about a time when you felt really happy, when you are at your absolute best, when you felt most awesome and loved and capable. What is happening in those moments? What has led to them? And how can you replicate that now?” Green said to try to focus on what helps you get into a good place. “Turning the volume up on the stuff that’s good doesn’t leave a lot of room for stuff that’s not helpful.”
9. Be patient
“We are all in mourning, and grieving is a process,” Green said. “It’s important to allow yourself some time to feel the loss. Acknowledge it. Bring it into your day and your art — play a song about it, paint, write, whatever it is. Face it and sit with it and do it every day until it becomes more manageable.”
10. Seek professional help
“If you are struggling at all, I cannot emphasize how important it is to reach out to an online behavioral health professional,” Patel-Dunn said. “Even just a few sessions can be so helpful to get some grounding and provide cognitive behavioral tools to help address anxiety and sleeplessness.”
Where to go for help: A list of resources
- Open Path Collective is a directory of therapists who accept sliding-scale payments.
- Inclusive Therapists is another great directory with sliding-scale payments.
- Ayana Therapy is an online therapy directory where all clinicians are people of color.
- The National Restaurants Association partnered with UnitedHealth Group to put together a robust selection of free mental health resources for all restaurant industry employees. The association also held several webinars that address mental health.
- Focus on Health provides hospitality professionals with the tools and resources to better their lives through health and wellness education, programming, and outreach.
- Chefs With Issues
- Cooks Who Care
- NextGenChef has partnered with MindfulText to help hospitality professionals stay mindful and begin a meditation practice to relieve stress. Subscribe for daily Mindful Texts here.