Hospitality Employees Can Now Get Free Mental Health Care

Food and drink brings us joy, but the professional business of preparing it is often hard, grueling work. Restaurant and bar jobs are often low-paying, high-pressure positions that require long hours, late nights and spending holidays at work instead of at home. Many bar and restaurant employees do not have health insurance or have inadequate health insurance. Workers turning to drugs and alcohol in order to deal with the hardships and pressure is a far too common scenario. Houston-based nonprofit Southern Smoke Foundation is now addressing these issues head on by collaborating with Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the University of Houston’s Department of Psychology to offer free mental health care services to Texas hospitality workers. In time, the Southern Smoke Foundation organization hopes to expand services to additional states.

Research sponsored by Unilever Food Solutions revealed that “74% of chefs are sleep deprived … 63%  of chefs feel depressed, and more than half feel pushed to the breaking point.” In 2017, Mental Health America released findings of a 21-month study of over 17,000 workers in 19 industries. That study ranked the food and beverage industry as one of the three worst for workplace mental health. In addition, a 2015 study showed that “accommodations and food service” was the third-highest workplace sector for alcohol abuse and number one for drug abuse.

For years, these mental health issues have often been ignored by the restaurant industry, but lately the challenges have started being recognized and confronted. There’s also now a new sense of urgency about addressing hospitality workers’ mental health, since  COVID-19 crisis has spurred mass layoffs, reduced hours, struggles to pay bills and fears of contracting the disease.

The new program spearheaded by the Southern Smoke Foundation, which was founded in 2015 by chef Chris Shepherd, offers free mental health care to any food and beverage employee in Texas, as well as their children. The initiative is the result of three years of planning. The process for requesting help is straightforward. Hospitality workers can contact Southern Smoke via its Mental Health Services page. A caseworker will then connect that person to the University of Houston’s Department of Psychology, who will match them with a graduate student clinician. That professional will then work with the client via telehealth sessions to develop and implement a treatment plan.

Dr. John P. Vincent, Professor and Director of the Center for Forensic Psychology at the University of Houston, who is one of two professors overseeing the program, said, “We are very pleased to partner with the Southern Smoke Foundation and Mental Health America of Greater Houston to provide mental health treatment services to those workers in the food and beverage industry who are struggling during these devastating times.”

Southern Smoke check 2017
Southern Smoke, spearheaded by James Beard award-winning chef Chris Shepherd raised over $500,000 for Houston Harvey relief in 2017. Photo by Catchlight Photography.

As this new initiative rolls out, Southern Smoke is continuing to administer its Emergency Relief Fund, which was founded in 2017 in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to help hospitality employees in crisis. Since COVID-19 has forced dining rooms across the country to close, the number of employees in need has skyrocketed and Southern Smoke has, as of May 28, distributed $1.873 million to bar and restaurant employees, with a priority placed on those with medical emergencies. In addition, the foundation has had to hire more caseworkers to handle the 25,908 applications for emergency funds they have received since the Covid-19 crisis began.

That increase in financial need highlights the increased need for mental health care, which Kathryn Lott, executive director of Southern Smoke, has been emphasizing for the last couple of years. In a statement she said, “We must be better to one another in the workplace and provide a safe environment; we need to have a dedicated, industry-specific outlet for those in the food and beverage industry who are in need of mental health support.”

If you would like to support this mission, as well as the Emergency Relief Fund, you can visit Southern Smoke’s website to make a donation.

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