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These Philly Programs Are Connecting Restaurant Workers to Mental Health Resources

Faced with sudden job loss in an already unstable industry, restaurant workers need affordable options more than ever

blurred image of cook in restaurant with prep items in the foreground
Local projects like Cooks Who Care are compiling mental health resources for restaurant workers.

Maria Campbell started Cooks Who Care, a Philadelphia-based initiative to connect restaurant employees with wellness resources, back in 2015. Now, with millions of servers, bartenders, line cooks, prep staff, and dish washers laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic, she says finding a way to get restaurant workers mental health and financial support is more important than ever.

Since the pandemic hit, Campbell has been compiling Philly-area resources in an ever-evolving list anyone can access via Google Docs, aggregating guidance on everything from filing for unemployment to signing up for free meditation classes, finding online meetings for people in recovery, and accessing low-cost tele-health resources.

Long hours, constant pressure, hostile work environments, and disparity in pay have long been hallmarks of the industry, Campbell says. According to pre-COVID 19 research conducted by global supplier Unilever Food Solutions, almost 75 percent of chefs were sleep deprived to the point of exhaustion, 63 percent felt depressed, and more than half felt pushed to the breaking point. Another study found that employees who rely on tips, like restaurant servers, are at greater risk for depression and stress, and more likely to live in poverty compared to those in non-tipped positions.

Add to that the fact that not enough restaurants offer their employees health insurance, and many employees who did have health insurance through their jobs are now laid off because of the pandemic.

It’s this vacuum of support that originally spurred Campbell to start Cooks Who Care. A former chef and Art Institute culinary educator, Campbell experienced first-hand in professional kitchens how hard the schedule and daily pressure can be on personal relationships, and she witnessed how vulnerable restaurant workers are to substance abuse. Most of all, she saw the lack of support, culturally and structurally. “Our culture was not giving us permission to serve ourselves and take care of ourselves,” she says. “The system doesn’t have the mechanisms to support employees long-term.”

It takes some digging through Campbell’s list to find specific resources, since she includes a wide range of topics. For mental well-being, one place to start is the “mindfulness” section, which includes free meditation options. Scroll down to the “substance use” category for a list of online meetings for people in recovery. There’s also a section titled “For Patients to Seek Therapy Online,” with low-cost tele-counseling options through programs like BetterHelp, which has a network of psychologists and social workers offering sessions for $40 to $70.

One entirely free resource designed specifically for hospitality employees was recently created by Ellen Yin of the High Street Hospitality restaurant group (Fork, High Street on Market, A.Kitchen) and Gia Vecchio, a chef and restaurant publicist who runs Foxglove Communications. Yin and Vecchio partnered with the counselors, therapists, and social workers at A Better Life Therapy to set up free weekly webinars, running though May 18, on topics that apply to employees who were laid off or furloughed, including navigating substance abuse struggles and sobriety while social distancing.

They’re also soliciting donations through GoFundMe to pay for individual sessions with therapists that restaurant workers can claim by contacting A Better Life. A $75 donation covers one tele-therapy session; they’ve raised close to $4,000 so far.

Vecchio, who worked in the restaurant industry for more than a decade, says she knows how difficult it can be to seek help, even before the coronavirus crisis. “$100 to $150 per hour for therapy is out of reach for our industry,” she says. “Having access to mental health services is such a privilege, but it should be a right.”

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.