I recently caught up with a cousin I haven’t seen in a while. I was explaining that I work at a behavioral health software company, and I write about issues in the field. Issues like the opioid crisis, trauma informed care, mental health, and more.
And he immediately told me that I should write about mental health in restaurant workers.
I just looked at him. That’s not a sector I ever thought to look into, and I doubted that there would be substantial information about it. When I said so, my cousin, a former chef, assured me there would be. He explained how stress, anxiety, and substance abuse are too common in the restaurant world. I was still skeptical, but promised I would look into it.
I did a quick Google search when I got back to work, and was shocked at the number of results I had. And saddened by the information I found.
Restaurants are often a place where those who don’t fit in conventional roles find their place. It’s an industry that is more likely to provide jobs for the formerly incarcerated or those who have consistently struggled with past trauma or substance abuse. It can also be a conducive workspace for those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as the repetitive nature of the work compliments their mindset.
There is a large amount of dignity and inclusiveness in restaurant work, but there are also a lot of detriments to one’s mental health. Food writer Kat Kinsman summed it up in one sentence for a Gothamist article, “There’s nobody in restaurants who doesn’t know somebody who killed themselves.”
Working in Hell’s Kitchen
Working in a restaurant is stressful. There’s a lot of pressure to create and replicate dishes that meet the restaurant’s standards. Flaring tempers are more common in this setting than in a traditional workplace. And working odd hours has more of an effect on a person’s mental well-being than one might think. One chef noted that when he gets home from work at 1AM, it’s lonely. His wife is asleep, as are most of his friends. But he’s unable to immediately fall asleep as his mind is still racing after the fast pace of his restaurant shift.
Mental health and substance abuse often plague those in the restaurant world. Those eating in restaurants often forget that there is a person behind each meal that comes out of the kitchen. When that person inevitably makes a mistake, it can become exaggerated. Especially when it’s shared with a lot of people on social media. These criticisms can have a negative effect on the mental health of those working in the restaurant. And when it’s combined with working late hours and dealing with a harsher work environment, it affects their mental health even more.
To cope, restaurant workers often self-medicate. Substance abuse is extremely common in the restaurant world because partying is already a large part of their culture. There’s easy access to alcohol and if the workers are looking for a place to unwind together after a shift, bars are the most common option.
Self-medicating only gets them so far though. Eventually, many of those struggling with mental health and substance abuse problems turn to suicide as their ultimate solution. In 2016, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention listed chefs and food service workers as one of the top 20 professions with the highest suicide rates.
Suicide – Shocking but not surprising
Anthony Bourdain’s recent suicide has shined a fresh light on the mental health issues plaguing those working in restaurants. Bourdain was an accomplished chef with many other ventures. He wrote several books – one entitled Kitchen Confidential about the challenging and brutal work of restaurant workers and the effect it has on them. He was also the star of multiple television shows. At the time of his death, his current project was his CNN series, Parts Unknown where he traveled all over the world eating and drinking with people without fear or prejudice.
Bourdain appeared to handle the intense stress and pressure of working and succeeding in the restaurant business well. However, appearances are not always accurate, and in June 2018, he committed suicide in Paris while filming an episode for Parts Unknown.
One chef described Bourdain’s death in a CNN article as shocking but not surprising. He noted how the entire industry would wait for Bourdain’s opinion on almost every topic, and how much pressure that must have added to his life.
Trying to Help
There are organizations that are trying to spread awareness of these issues and offer support for those dealing with them.
Ben’s Friends was started by two restaurant natives after their friend and chef, Ben, committed suicide after suffering from anxiety and depression. The two founders wanted to prevent it from happening again, so they started this organization.
Similar to AA meetings, Ben’s Friends provides support for those handling substance abuse and addiction. The difference is that everyone at the meetings is from the restaurant industry and understands the nuances that make restaurants so difficult to work in while remaining sober.
Chefs with Issues is a website started by Kat Kinsman – a New York City writer familiar with mental health struggles and food. When Kinsman would interview chefs for articles, she noticed how many would make offhand comments off the record about the mental health issues they and their fellow restaurant workers were struggling with. They’re all suffering in silence, and they’re paying for it. Kinsman started Chefs with Issues to offer those struggling in the industry to share their stories and resources for dealing with the unique pressures of restaurant life.
Keeping the Conversation Going
Organizations like Ben’s Friends and mediums like Chefs with Issues can start the conversation about mental health and substance abuse so that others feel supported and don’t feel as if suicide is their only option.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.