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Let’s Talk About It

Suicide, Substance Abuse and Other Mental Illnesses in the Food Service Industry One Year After Anthony Bourdain’s Death

 

Story by Martha Polk
Illustrations by Bryn Rouse @brynscritterz

 

In her late 20s, Carrie Neal Walden found herself in a moment of personal upheaval and professional indecision. She left her career in sales and decided to become a server while she figured out next steps. It turned out, she loved it. She loved the energy, teamwork and sociability of working in a restaurant, and - as a perennial people pleaser - she loved taking care of guests every night and figuring out what they needed even before they did.

But she also started to pick up what she calls the bad habits that come with the territory. She worked long shifts and couldn’t take breaks to eat. She slept on an erratic schedule, when she did sleep at all. She worked weekends and was a night owl, keeping hours ill-suited to gym memberships or friends with nine-to-fives. Her social world narrowed to her fellow servers.

Also, she drank. Before, she had been hyper-focused on planning for the future; now it was fun to just work hard, make money, put off thinking about the next 10 years, and drink at the end of a long shift. She worked at a fever pitch and took full advantage of the moments when she could put her feet up or have fun, which were almost always shift drinks at bar after-hours.

Increasingly though, she drank anytime she could. When hangovers took over or her shift endurance started to fade, she’d find a new restaurant and start again. Now in her late 30s, vodka was in her system at all times. She was wilting from exhaustion - she knew she had to quit or something had to change, but she drank to steady her hands. It all came to a head the day she took a fall on the job, cracking her ribs and prompting a referral to a liver doctor. He told her that if she didn’t quit drinking, she had just 12 to 18 months to live.

Walden is not alone.

Of all occupations, the hospitality and restaurant industry reports the third highest rate of heavy alcohol use (11.8%), the highest rate of illicit drug use (19.1%) and the highest rate of substance abuse disorder (16.9%) - all of which far exceed national averages. Still, these numbers may underestimate the problem since workers in especially precarious positions might not feel comfortable accurately self-reporting substance use.

For many, alcohol and drug addiction dovetails with other mental illnesses that run rampant in the hospitality industry, including clinical depression which affects at least 10.3% of food industry workers, though informal data indicates the rate is likely much higher. What’s more, while the industry ranks between the 13th and 19th for most suicides by occupation, it comes in just second in terms of suicidal ideation, with 5.7% of workers reporting they had considered killing themselves within the last year. These numbers are likely deflated as well; qualitative evidence points to many factors that depress self-reporting in the food industry, including stigma, pride and a belief that one just has to “pay their dues.” Still, tragically, the largest increase in suicides from 2012 to 2015 can be found among women in the food preparation and service industry, a rate that increased a full 54% over these three years.

All of these issues - from substance abuse, to depression, to suicidality - are exacerbated for people who are experiencing greater overall stress in their lives, working within devastating financial margins or surviving well below a livable wage. In the restaurant industry as with elsewhere in our country, racial and gender segregation means that people of color, and especially women of color, occupy these most precarious positions.

 
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If you’re one of this country’s 11 million food service workers, you likely know these issues all too intimately, no matter if you work in a fast casual chain or a world-renowned fine dining restaurant. The rest of the public, however, has largely learned about the tragic stakes of the industry’s addiction and mental health epidemics through the suicides of several high-profile chefs. Daniel Nilsson, Homaro Cantu, Benoit Violier, Bernard Loiseau and many other acclaimed chefs have taken their own lives - Loiseau purportedly soon after learning he might lose a Michelin star.

Perhaps most widely felt, Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide one year ago continues to resound throughout the hospitality world.

“When Tony took his life, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back - it blew people up,” says restaurateur and Bizarre Foods TV host, Andrew Zimmern, who was also Bourdain’s friend. As many others reflected after his passing, Bourdain was a man of vast intellect, good humor and true heart, all of which invited new audiences into the study of food and culture. A chef turned pop sociologist, he was an icon of the industry who seemed to have it all, yet remained humble in the style of all those who converse with the world’s great hardships and mysteries. It seemed unconscionable that he would be gripped by a depression fierce enough to take away his life.

“It shattered me, as his friend, because I’m hyper aware of this stuff and I didn’t see in him that [suicide] was a solution,” says Zimmern, who has been outspoken about his own addiction, suicidality and recovery, and has also been an advocate for others in the industry. “The idea that he needed to solve his problems that way had never occurred to me.”

Many in the industry were blindsided by Bourdain’s death. Beyond the sheer sadness of losing him, this inability to see it coming is haunting: if he did it, then who else - industry icon or your coworker silently washing dishes beside you - might not show up to work tomorrow?

“We need to talk about Anthony Bourdain,” wrote Food & Wine editor and mental health advocate Kat Kinsman the day after Bourdain’s death. “As I see it, you either have to deal with the slightly uncomfortable situation of having your line cook cry in front of you, or you cry at their funeral. I'm sorry to make it sound that dire, but it is.”

 
 
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Let’s talk about it.

For Carrie Neal Walden, many of the factors that contributed to her lifestyle and drinking problem are also standard expectations of the industry. For folks who make money off tips, Walden says, “the culture of our work is that you don’t take breaks. So if I started on Friday night and picked up a double over the weekend, I’d maybe have one meal in there… and when you’re off at 2 am, nobody wants to go home. Nobody wants to eat a healthy dinner and drink water.”

Adding insult to injury, “We work nights and weekends when everyone else is out to relax or have a good time,” says Walden. Operating outside of mainstream schedules, “you make a world of other restaurant people and reinforce each other’s habits.” But failing to get food, water, rest, daylight - basically, the essentials needed for any plant to grow - is just the tip of the iceberg for this profession.

The flip side to the fast pace of the industry is what Walden describes as a “franticness about how to sustain that energy through the night” that results in “everyone learning pretty quickly who has pills, pot, coke,” or whatever else your personal predilection might be. Shift drinks are the norm, managers kindly buy shots for the staff and “the only office with a bar open 24/7 is a restaurant,” says Walden. “Every place is of course different, but generally if you’re not too drunk or high to do your job, you’re not gonna get fired.”

Then there’s the stress. When people don’t tip or they take out their bad day on you, it’s not only frustrating but incredibly stressful in a job where making your rent often depends on your customers’ positive experiences. “The downside of wanting to please people is that you can’t please everybody,” says Walden.

In addition, most restaurants don’t provide benefits like healthcare or paid time off. Amidst a hornet’s nest of addiction, stress, depression and other mental health issues, it makes matters infinitely worse that you have no time to take care of yourself and, even if you did, no doctor to go to or health resources available.

“It’s just a hotbed of bad coping mechanisms,” says Walden. “There’s nothing like a long, bad shift to unite people around drinking a bunch of tequila.”

 
 
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Many high-profile chefs have been increasingly transparent about their own struggles with substance abuse and other mental illnesses in order to shine a light on the toll they take on the industry. Charleston’s famed chef Sean Brock has been particularly outspoken about his precarious existence with alcohol, his failing physical and mental health, and the recovery and self-care regimen needed to keep him afloat today. Chefs like Michael Young and Matt Hinckley have similarly spoken out, while Kat Kinsman continues to cultivate platforms for open discussion of mental illness in food service, including the Chefs with Issues Facebook group, which she started as an unpublicized online experiment but which now boasts 3,000 active members.

Restaurateurs like Wolete “Sunny” Atherley and many others have worked to cultivate healthy work environments to counter depression and prevent further suicides. Such human sustainability means creating a culture where workers not only have time to check in with one another but feel comfortable doing so, and it means providing a livable wage and letting people take time off to tend to their mental health without being fired. In an industry with bone-thin margins, this is perhaps easier said than done, but even small things, like hanging mental health resource sheets in the break room or giving managers time to do a suicide prevention training, like the QPR training recently made available by Giving Kitchen, can go a long way.

“I believe the hospitality industry is defined not by a financial transaction, but by an emotional transaction,” says Zimmern. “When you start to think of it that way, you realize that, if you want to help someone, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first.”

Investing in your own employees before expecting them to serve others is the ethos that drives Giving Kitchen, as well as other organizations like Fair Kitchens, The Heirloom Foundation, Big Table and Ben’s Friends, the latter three of which were founded in honor of food service workers who - whether by addiction, suicide or both - didn’t make it.

In just one of these tragic examples, chef Ben Murray took his own life after struggling with alcoholism for years. His friend, Steve Palmer, who is also managing partner of Indigo Hospitality group, had the job of calling Murray’s mother to let her know. After that harrowing responsibility, he started to speak out about the issues that face the industry and, along with a few others who were close to Murray, founded Ben’s Friends as a support group specifically for food and beverage industry workers who are battling substance abuse or addiction. Ben’s Friends is now paving a path forward for industry workers in six cities, with plans to expand in the future.

Walden will never forget that day in the doctor’s office. After her dire prognosis, she says, “[the doctor] asked me why I was killing myself, and I didn’t have a good answer, but I finally realized I didn’t want to die.”

Having dismissed previous offers to help her get into a recovery program, she forced herself to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “I was not jumping up and down ready to admit I was an alcoholic,” she says, but she kept going to meetings and eventually got a job at Chick-fil-A, which she says was “definitely the safest place for me at that time.” Slowly, she started to face past-due bills and unreconciled hospital visits. She did long-forgotten things like hang out with her parents, reconnect with old friends, read books, watch Netflix and eventually started to exercise.

To be clear, she says, it was “absolutely not fun at first. Quitting was hard!” But living sober slowly began to feel easier than anything that came with “the obsession” of her addiction. Ultimately, she asked for her old job back.

 
 
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“Everywhere I go, people are talking about solutions to this,” says Zimmern. “We’ve got a lot of work left to do, and I want to underscore that, but I’ve also never seen an industry pivot faster into solutions and action rather than just continuing to talk about the problem. It’s miraculous.” 

Kinsman agrees. While she and many others have been working on these issues for a long time, she says that Bourdain’s death escalated change like nothing else. The day of Bourdain’s passing, Chefs with Issues gained 1,000 members.

“It’s still tragic and horrifying that Tony’s death was the catalyst for conversation, but this past year has been so markedly different for people’s willingness to address and talk about it. It’s been a real galvanizing of communities around this.” Kinsman says she gave a talk about mental illness in the industry at the MAD symposium in 2016, and the audience was divided - half were willing to talk about these issues, but the other half were defensive, pointing out that she’d never worked in a kitchen and asking why she was trying to weaken or change restaurant culture. “After Tony, in 2018,” she says, “I went back to that symposium to run two breakout sessions on these issues, both filled to capacity with people from around the world. There was no push back from anyone.”

“The legacy of Tony’s life,” says Zimmern, “will have two very powerful components: the incredible body of work that influenced so many people and will continue for generations, and the awareness of, in our industry, the strange mental blank spots that we all need to watch out for because caring for others is so vital.” 

While Kinsman agrees that “the dialogue is palpably different,” she adds that “still, the sticking point is resources,” before disclosing that she’s known of an astounding 19 industry professionals to commit suicide in the past year - “and that’s just who I know about.”

When asked what needs pop up again and again on Chefs with Issues, Kinsman answers without missing a beat: “Money. Whether it’s money to live on or money for therapy or wellbeing - it’s so important.” Other recurring themes include resources for crisis response, mental and physical healthcare, and figuring out how to take time and pay for recovery. Notably, on Chefs with Issues, these problems arise regardless of the person’s geographic region, restaurant type or position. Since these issues don’t discriminate, neither should the solutions. While Giving Kitchen and other support organizations serve everyone in the industry, there is some worry that in terms of on-the-ground food service life, the conversations about these issues are primarily happening among upper-echelon dining and may not be reaching those who don’t regularly pick up Food & Wine.

“The places that are getting into action are the places that can afford to, dollar-wise, time-wise or in some other way,” says Zimmern, “and that’s what has to end.” Of benefits like paid time off and healthcare, he says, “We need to convince owners to invest in their own employees first,” and quickly adds, “but we also need real legislative change. Every American needs to have insurance, and we need to have mental health parity laws so that if you’re having suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug or gambling addiction - you can go get it treated the same way as if you break your arm.”

 
 
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Walden survived.

“I changed everything about my life except the place I worked,” she says, “and I made rules for myself.” She focused on all the little acts of self-care that seem easy until you try to do them, and you realize how difficult - and vital - they really are. When there wasn’t time for a meal, she carried almonds and an energy bar in her apron. She made a point to go running. She made a budget. Slowly but surely, she learned how to do things like celebrate, and grieve, without drinking.

These days, Walden is the Atlanta representative for Ben’s Friends. “I’ve come a long way and am in a really good place,” she says (she fact-checked her portion of this story on either side of a yoga class). With Ben’s Friends, Walden leads two meetings a week, which she describes as “just great group support - raw, honest, funny - where we ask, ‘what’s it like to get or stay sober in our industry? How do you stay sane and sober in our job?’” She encourages folks to do all those little but difficult things like, in addition to keeping almonds in your apron, following social media accounts that focus on sobriety, tuning into supportive podcasts and making connections with others.

“The most important thing,” Walden says, “is to ask for help, because someone will help you. It’s also the hardest thing, because you feel like you’re alone - whether you have suicidal ideations, or substance abuse issues, or anything else. But wherever you are, whatever your experience, don’t be afraid to talk about it.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.

 
 

 

Giving Kitchen, self-care and finding our voice

a message from Bryan Schroeder

 

Accident or Illness. Death of an immediate family member. Housing crisis because of flood or fire.

When Giving Kitchen started - and to this day - those were the issues we addressed. The longer we spent time in the business of helping food service workers in crisis, the more frequently we asked - are we doing enough? What about drug abuse, suicide, mental health, financial stability, sustainability, harassment and other issues of self-care?

At the same time, we discovered that we have a voice, that we have a platform. If we speak, people will listen. As our platform grew, so did our confidence that we could tell stories vital to the health of our community, in an effort to raise awareness around issues of self-care. It is our honor to join a chorus of voices from around the country calling for a better food service community. Thank you for reading along, caring about Giving Kitchen and caring about the men and women who serve us every day.

Thank you Martha Polk for writing this wonderful story.