Baker Abby Love says she’s had chronic depression for “most of her life,” including a suicidal episode when she was twelve years old. She met with a therapist at that time, but it wasn’t until she was 26 and in graduate school that she was able to find one who was truly helpful. During her initial session, the therapist assured Love what she previously viewed as personality flaws were “normal” and a result of biological and psychological factors. A couple of years later, Love decided to try antidepressants. They’ve given her the boost she needs to bathe, leave the house, be creative, and run a business.
“It’s okay for me to think, ‘My brain is just a little off and has trouble doing that serotonin thing,’ ” Love says. “Unless I want to be comatose and staring at the wall for weeks on end, which helps no one, I just need a little chemical assistance.”
She wants to bring a frank and open conversation on mental illness to her Abby Jane Bakeshop, in Dripping Springs, where for the past two years she’s helped fund-raise for the Central Texas affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nonprofit that provides education and support programs to those who live with mental illnesses, as well as friends and family who want to understand how mental illness affects their loved ones. In May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, Love’s shop will offer a special “stormy cloud” sugar cookie with gray frosting and rainbow sprinkles for $4, with proceeds donated to NAMI.
While the issue of mental illness is pervasive across the board (according to NAMI, it affects one in five U.S. adults each year), working in the service industry can be especially taxing on mental health.
“If your income is based on whether a customer is happy and hands over their dollars to you, you’re working as an emotional hostage,” Love says. Front-of-house workers typically earn a base pay of $2.13 per hour in Texas and have to rely on tips to make a living, which makes servers especially beholden to customer experience.
Another factor that can exacerbate mental illness in the service industry is that the industry typically mandates working during times associated with leisure: holidays, weekends, and evenings. Hence, recreational time happens after restaurants close and bars open, when “not a lot of good stuff happens,” Love says.
An additional stress factor is that service jobs often don’t include health benefits, which can make therapy appointments and prescriptions unaffordable. (Texas notably has the highest rate of uninsured workers in America, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.) Love offers her six full-time employees a choice among three plans that include mental health coverage, even though it cuts into her profits. As long as she can make the numbers work, she feels an ethical responsibility to do so.
In February, Alex Eagle, CEO of Austin-based Freebirds World Burrito, also took an active approach to addressing his employees’ health. He surveyed 150 managers about their interest in various wellness topics, and mental health was the number one area of interest. The company’s current Employee Assistance Program offers three free counseling sessions per year, per issue. That could mean three sessions for financial stress and three more sessions on grief and loss in the same year, Eagle explains.
Getting restaurant and bar owners and executives to invest in mental health services for their employees is important, but mental health coverage is often a more expensive auxiliary benefit on top of already costly plans. And workers don’t always access the benefits. “Adoption can still prove to be very difficult,” Eagle says, “so it’s frustrating for many in our industry to add expense when too few people take advantage of the benefit.” Restrictive standards of medical necessity also convolute the process of mental health benefits. When employer-provided plans aren’t easily accessible, nonprofits are available for additional help and resources.
One such organization is Foundation 45, designed to help creatives in the Dallas–Fort Worth area cope with depression, addiction, and alcoholism. It provides in-person and virtual group therapy sessions three evenings a week. Stephanie Gray, manager of the Dallas restaurant Lounge Here, considers Foundation 45 to be an incredible resource. She organized a chicken and dumpling cook-off in 2020 to raise funds for the nonprofit.
Gray says she can no longer count how many of her friends have died by suicide or overdose. She estimates six fellow industry members have died in the last two years, with two occurrences in the last four months. “I’m starting to become numb to this,” she says. “And that’s a really awful feeling.”
Tommy Morton, the bar manager at Fort Worth music venue Billy Bob’s Texas, concurs: “We’ve all been to too many funerals.” He actively patrols social media during the early morning hours to watch for friends who post something alarming and need someone to talk to, because he’d “rather spend a few hours online at three a.m.” than attend another funeral.
Gray agrees it’s during the early morning hours that the service industry most acutely needs support, especially if employees have been drinking or have had a rough shift. Tragedies often result from split-second decisions, and from Gray’s experience talking to friends, by the time workers wake up again, they feel different.
While the need for mental health support is reaching a crisis level, people like Love are helping make awareness and seeking help less taboo. Within the last few years, Texas nonprofits have begun providing restaurant workers with free and reduced-price counseling and providing restaurant owners with solutions.
Southern Smoke Foundation’s Behind You
The Southern Smoke Foundation, created by Houston chef Chris Shepherd, launched its mental health program in Texas in 2020 as a response to Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide and an increased demand for counseling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Called Behind You—kitchen lingo for indicating someone is close by—the program offers free mental health sessions with graduate students at partner universities, which are overseen by licensed professionals.
Any food-and-beverage worker in Texas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, or New York can receive no-cost counseling sessions for themselves and their children on conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to neurodevelopmental disorders.
Texas Restaurant Association’s HealthiestYou by Teladoc
The Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) is working to prioritize mental and general health-care access for every Texas restaurant employee, says president and CEO Emily Williams Knight. In January, the TRA launched HealthiestYou by Teladoc, which provides unlimited mental health and general medical visits for everyone in an employee’s household for $9 per month—without co-pays or deductibles.
In addition, TRA-member restaurants that wish to provide access to affordable plans can opt in to the newly launched Healthy Hospitality program, a bundle of employer-sponsored health-care plans that include mental health benefits. Employees at TRA-member restaurants can also utilize Hospitality-Health, a free concierge that provides assistance with selecting plans from the federal marketplace.
HarperFest was founded in 2021 after Lubbock bartender and stand-up comedian Jerrod Harper died by suicide. He was the “life of the party” and enjoyed making people laugh, says Randi Brackett, a founding board member of HarperFest who was Harper’s close friend throughout the twenty years he worked in the service industry.
During the pandemic, when clubs and bars shut down, Harper did too. “It really started to eat at his core, because he wasn’t able to do what he’d been conditioned to do every day,” Brackett says. For Harper, talking with customers and socializing with friends at the bar after work was his form of therapy, says Lubbock restaurant worker Hanson Wallace, who’s lost three fellow industry members to suicide and drug overdose in his eighteen years of experience.
To honor Harper’s memory and help others, HarperFest covers the cost of in-person or Zoom appointments via Family Counseling Services. Lubbock service workers can request as many appointments as they may need.
Mike & Sherry Project
Named after Mike Shefman and Sherry Greenberg, a prominent couple known throughout restaurants in Austin as friendly regulars who care about staff, the Mike & Sherry Project was founded in 2019 by Suerte and Este owner Sam Hellman-Mass and two other industry veterans. Hellman-Mass grew up with a mother who worked as a mental health nurse at a hospital in Boston. Desiring to give back, he formed a partnership with Capital Area Counseling (CAC) the year after Suerte opened.
Austin restaurants can join the partnership to divide the cost of sliding scale counseling appointments. A total of sixty restaurants have joined since the project’s founding, and nearly 7,500 appointments have been provided.
Workers not employed at a restaurant in the Mike & Sherry Project can email [email protected] for information on CAC’s income-based sliding scale fee.