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After a series of high-profile suicides last year, one restaurant owner in Sacramento, California, decided to confront a problem plaguing kitchens around the country. The fast-paced, high-pressure environment and often low wages can take its toll on workers' mental health. His peer-to-peer counseling and support program, “I Got Your Back,” is now starting to spread. John Yang reports.
After a series of high-profile suicides last year, including Anthony Bourdain, one restaurant owner in Sacramento, California, decided to take action. He is now trying to spark a national movement, one kitchen at a time.
John Yang reports for our weekly series on the Leading Edge of health and science.
The dinner specials at Mulvaney's B&L restaurant in Sacramento, pasta with truffle and wild caught halibut with bok choy. The mood of the staff, very anxious.
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Tensions are high because chef and owner Patrick Mulvaney blew up earlier when a catering job went wrong. Months ago, the staff might have pushed their feelings aside, smiled for the customers and moved on.
But, these days, workers are encouraged to be open about their feelings and keep an eye on each other. It's a change born out of necessity and loss.
I have the best job in the world, let's face it.
Anthony Bourdain's suicide last year shocked the restaurant community around the world. The host of CNN's "Parts Unknown" was beloved by chefs, candid about his battles with drugs and depression.
In Sacramento, Bourdain's death came amid a string of restaurant workers' suicides.
So, in four weeks, we had four people die. And on a Sunday, we had a memorial here for our server. And I woke up Monday to get ready for a memorial for a former bartender to see my phone lit up with all the messages that a former chef had died as well. And just four memorial services in two weeks is too much.
Mulvaney's grief spurred him to create a program focused on his workers' mental health. He calls it I Got Your Back.
We want people to be able to talk about it, and that the idea that you can, by lowering stigma, increase the safety.
But, also, the people who are facing challenges, instead of saying, that's just them, we will let them go, we're beginning to engage with them to try and say, hey I don't think you're OK. How can we help you be better?
It's a peer-to-peer counseling and support program designed in conjunction with local health care providers.
Researchers say that service employees who rely on tips are more susceptible to depression and stress than any other employees. And according to federal data, substance abuse is higher in the restaurant and hospitality industry than in any other field.
The fast-paced, high-pressure environment of restaurant kitchens, long, grueling shifts, and what are often low and unpredictable wages, can take its toll.
The reticence to ask for help or ask people for things is built into the restaurant industry, because we're about hospitality. Is your drink cold? Is your steak hot? Is your soup to your liking? We never ask about ourselves.
To encourage staff to be aware of their feelings and those of their colleagues, each member of Mulvaney's team gives a mood check when they clock in for work each day. They pick a color, red for angry, green for happy, yellow for OK and blue for sad, and place it in a box.
Lisa Schulze is the restaurant's human resource manager.
Throughout the day, we might grab the box at the change of shift time, and kind of count out how many reds we have, how many yellows we have, how many greens. Sometimes, just having an idea about how people are feeling changes how you react with them.
And I just wanted to basically say thank you for stepping up for Alex.
One worker on every shift, identified by a purple helping hand sticker like the one Lisa's wearing, is trained to recognize signs of colleagues' mental distress and direct them to help.
When we said that we're going to have the counselors being peers, being the people on the floor working with you in the trenches, that then people would go to them naturally, and, in fact, they have.
And they can relay fellow workers' concerns to the boss. Resources are available online and reminders are everywhere, from the bathrooms to the host stand, that there is help and hope.
A coalition of local health care groups, including Kaiser Permanente and the University of California, Davis, Medical Center provide funding and mental health resources.
What made today worse?
Liseanne Wick is the director of the suicide prevention program at WellSpace Health, which also provides services for Mulvaney's program.
The beauty of the I Got Your Back project is that it puts it right there where they're at. It makes talking about mental health, and wellness, and help-seeking, and even suicide or depression a more natural thing.
Mulvaney's initiative fits with the other community work he does with his wife and business partner, Bobbin. He says it's inspired by one of his favorite films, the classic "It's A Wonderful Life."
The B&L in his restaurant's name stands for Building and Loan, a nod to the institution at the center of the movie's story.
Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan.
I hoped that we would open a place for people to come to talk about issues of the day and invite us into those conversations.
And over the last 13 years, what we have seen is that we have become a central part of many of those conversations in our community. And this is the first time where we are bringing that outside community in to talk about how to help our own community too.
Help people like Casey Shideler, executive chef at another Sacramento restaurant, Taylor's Kitchen. She's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In the 10 years she's worked in professional kitchens, she says she hit rock bottom both in her alcoholism and mental health. In 2018, she was having suicidal thoughts, but never talked about it. After Bourdain's suicide, she attended a I Got Your Back session at Mulvaney's.
After that first meeting, even though I didn't speak, I felt better. That's when I spoke with my mother for the first time. Like, my mom has been in the mental health field my entire life, and she's always been a safe person to talk to.
But even then, I wouldn't talk to her. I wouldn't talk to anyone. I don't know why. I mean, that's not true. I know exactly why. It's just an incredible — incredibly difficult thing to say out loud and admit to people.
Since then, she's gotten the treatment she needs, including medication. She's now trained in mental health first aid and is running an I Got Your Back program at her own restaurant.
Everyone in the room, we have all faced a pretty tough year, but also a tough life, and started to think about how we change the culture in our kitchens.
By organizing mental health training sessions for other Sacramento restaurant owners, Mulvaney hopes he will be able to expand the program statewide, and one day take the program to kitchens across the country.
As we, as an industry, start to talk about this and open it up and reduce stigma, we think that everyone will begin to come into the conversation.
And he hopes his effort provides an example for others to follow.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Sacramento, California.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
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