Dustin Walker knows what it’s like to feel anxious and out of control—and to spend years trying to relieve the stress through drinking. “It wasn’t until I was 29 that I was diagnosed with anxiety that I was masking for a long time with alcohol,” he says. Even after starting treatment, Walker continued to drink. “Two or three years after being diagnosed with anxiety and treating it with medicine, I was still treating it with alcohol and it was making it worse,” he recalls. But a little more than a year ago, the general manager at Birmingham’s Social Kitchen & Bar finally decided to get sober—and it was, he says, “the best decision I could have made for my mental health.”
Now, as the restaurant industry faces a widespread crisis due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Walker is worried not only about the livelihoods of his friends and coworkers, but also their mental health and sobriety. “I know exactly what I’d be doing right now if I hadn’t found the program,” he says.
Nearly everyone in Michigan — with the exception of people who perform essential services — is sheltering in place right now. That isolation can bring anxiety — from a lack of human contact, a sense of uncertainty, concerns about the economy, and worries about the health and safety of loved ones. Some people are managing by quarantine baking or watching hours of Netflix. Others are hosting video chats with friends or taking walks. And quite a few, whether out of boredom or a desire for stress relief, are drinking.
Members of the restaurant industry are no strangers to stress, anxiety, and the use of alcohol to self-medicate, and it’s for this reason that many of them are being acutely impacted by the pandemic. Prior to the crisis, an estimated 40 percent of U.S. restaurant and bar workers were already living in poverty. A disproportionate number of service industry workers were also already dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues: According to a 2015 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, food and service industry workers experienced the highest rates of illicit drug use out of any industry and ranked third highest for heavy drinking. Likewise, one study found that tipped servers were at greater risk for sleep problems, stress, and depression, and “more than twice as likely to live in poverty relative to untipped workers.” To further exacerbate the issue, these same people lack widespread access to healthcare and mental health services.
What’s more, many workers may be made even more vulnerable by the same mindset that makes them great at their jobs. “People that thrive and do well in hospitality tend to have a set of traits or characteristics that make them really good at taking care of people and thriving off people’s appreciation,” Walker explains. “That sometimes can go hand in hand with some of the same triggers and factors that can be related to people with very addictive personalities.” And thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, those individuals aren’t necessarily “getting that gratification of taking care of people and being of service to people,” he adds. “We all in life have callings and we all need to feel needed in different ways. People that do well in hospitality, they don’t have that outlet right now and it can be really dangerous.” That, coupled with the fact that many of Michigan’s substance abuse meetings have been canceled or moved online in an effort to reinforce social distancing, has created a difficult situation for people in recovery who rely on a support system.
On March 17, Walker turned to Facebook, urging anyone who was struggling to stay sober or drinking too much to give him a call. He has since heard from several people who have been having a tough time with their drinking. “Obviously,” he says, “you have to be in a very specific spot to reach out for help, especially from a stranger.”
Last week, Adam O’Connor also opened himself up to phone calls with people both in and outside of the industry trying to manage their sobriety. A marketing and PR director with Otus Supply in Ferndale, he’ll have been sober for 16 years this April. “To me, it’s always been about my support system,” O’Connor says. “Not having that is really challenging” for food industry workers whose usual support system was tied to a routine like going to work and being around like-minded people, he explains. And the loss of regular meetings and support groups can make people seeking help feel even more untethered. “That can be overwhelming in a situation that already feels like you’re taking on the world when you’re trying to either stay sober or battle those demons one day at a time,” O’Connor says. “The world is upside down right now.”
Although some restaurant employees like Dustin Walker are fortunate to receive healthcare benefits from their employers, many are not. Keeping employee benefits intact was on Kate Williams’s mind as made the difficult decision to close her three Detroit restaurants and bars after several employees expressed concerns about the safety of remaining open. As the chef prepared to let go of more than 80 employees at Lady of the House, Karl’s, and Candy Bar on March 15, she did her best to take care of them: in addition to preparing freezer meals to feed her employees during the initial 14-day closing period, Williams also made sure that those currently enrolled with company health plans would continue to have access to coverage for the same period. That included mental health counseling — for both employees with coverage and resources and those without.
“It’s stressful. It’s a completely unprecedented time,” Williams says. “Stress also weakens your immune system.” For her, staying grounded has meant advocating for the local restaurant industry at the state and national levels as well as staying in touch with staff and cooking at home. “We’re trying to do this together and get through this together,” she says.
For people without access to mental health professionals, there are still ways to receive help. Numerous support groups are now active online through Facebook, video chats, and apps. Alcoholics Anonymous also operates several local hotlines. Chefs With Issues, a project dedicated to mental health in the food industry, also provides national resources on its website for people in need.
While social media can be a source of anxiety for people who follow the news, Aaron O’Conner believes it can also be a relief to be so connected at a time like this. “The fortunate thing is that we are all in communication right now through so many platforms it’s almost absurd,” he says. “But it just takes a seconds if you’re in a bad spot that you can to reach out to someone and hear back.”
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.
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