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Southern Smoke’s New Initiative Offers Free Mental Health Care to Service Industry Workers

The benefit extends to the children of these workers, too

Chris Shepherd, co-founder of Southern Smoke
Southern Smoke/Facebook

The Houston non-profit Southern Smoke Foundation has announced a new initiative to provide free mental health services to anyone in the food and beverage industry — and their children — in Texas.

The program is a partnership between Southern Smoke, Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the University of Houston Department of Psychology. It works by pairing hospitality employees or their children with PHD clinical psychology students at UH for telemedicine appointments, with the ultimate goal of creating a customized, long-term mental health plan, completely free of charge.

Kathryn Lott, executive director of Southern Smoke, said in a statement that the program was inspired in part by the 2018 suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. “It shook the food and beverage industry and prompted an industry-wide discussion about mental health.”

Following Bourdain’s death, Southern Smoke hosted a roundtable discussion with cofounder Chris Shepherd, UB Preserv chef Nick Wong and other restaurant industry folks, during which the foundation’s leaders concluded that the next step in its nonprofit efforts would be to create a dedicated, industry-specific outlet for mental health support for those in the food and beverage industry. “We must remove the stigma surrounding mental health in our industry,” Lott said. “We must be better to one another in the work place and provide a safe environment.

In 2017, the nonprofit Mental Health America released the findings of a two-year study showing that the food and drink industry was among the worst in the United States when it came to employee mental health. Long hours, a high-stress, fast-paced environment and the fact that much of the work involves physical labor all contribute to negative mental health effects. Plus, many food and beverage workers do not have employer-subsidized health insurance. That stress has only been compounded by the industry’s uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Another study in 2015 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that hospitality employees have the highest instances of illicit drug use compared to 18 other employment sectors, and the third-highest heavy alcohol usage.

The Mental Health Services program is an extension of work Southern Smoke first started in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey. That year, the organization launched an Emergency Relief Fund to provide financial assistance to those in the food and drink industry who needed help with medical bills, rebuilding homes, therapy and other services. The new collaboration between UH and MHA will allow Southern Smoke to extend free mental health services to Texas-based food and drink employees beyond just Houston.

Southern Smoke’s work has continued to pivot as the coronavirus pandemic has led to layoffs and closures in the restaurant world. The organization was originally founded in 2015 to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.