Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Get local news delivered straight to your phone

City Paper asked bar and restaurant employees what they’d like their industry to look like in five years in terms of mental health, and what they would change if they were the boss. 

“Healthcare for D.C.’s second largest industry.”

“Close the restaurant two days a week so everyone has a guaranteed day off.” 

“Training to recognize signs of mental disease.”

“A congenial work environment.” 

“I hope people start to trust who they’re working for and employers start to trust who is working for them.”

“Si los empleadores le importan sus empleados, los tratarían como su propia familia.”

Talk to them some more, and these workers—from prep cooks, servers, and bartenders to executive chefs and general managers—will oscillate between touting their passion for their craft and candidly unraveling what it’s like to work in a field rife with hazards that can catalyze or exacerbate mental health conditions.

The hardships they face aren’t new. And therein lies the frustration. Diners are enjoying a food and drink renaissance, but progress behind the scenes largely hasn’t caught up. People have been pontificating about what makes a restaurant a petri dish for emotional pain for decades—before Anthony Bourdain peeled back the curtain by penning Kitchen Confidential in 2000, and before the chef and author took his life in June. 

When one of the greatest culinary storytellers died, writers published a plethora of analyses about the state of the restaurant industry. In reporting this story, City Paper sought to examine what local stressors exist in D.C. and what people here are doing to bring about change for District workers.

The reality is that mental health conditions affect one fifth of the U.S. population, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Only 50 percent of these individuals seek treatment, and those numbers dwindle further for the hospitality industry, which lags behind in insurance coverage, making therapy a luxury few can afford. 

A confluence of factors leaves many hospitality industry workers uninsured, from thin profit margins to the fact that many restaurants chiefly hire part-time workers. Without work-sponsored insurance, low-wage earners can get stuck in limbo, unable to afford individual coverage but just above the income line of eligibility for Medicaid. It’s part of the reason you see GoFundMe pages fundraising for restaurant employees to afford care or time off to recover. 

DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority Director Mila Kofman confirms that the local restaurant industry has some of the lowest offer rates. She says she’s never met a restaurant operator who didn’t want to offer coverage, but they question if they can afford it year after year. 

Absent access to professionals, these resilient workers turn to each other for support. The fraternal bond between restaurant and bar staff is not unlike that of a sports team or military unit.

But too often, outsiders tell restaurant workers that the problem they’re facing is the industry itself—the long and intense hours, inconsistent schedules, and constant exposure to alcohol. For some, this message drills down to: “Your passion in life is the cause of your problems.” Those committed to the industry want solutions, not an escape hatch. As one local server put it, “This is a career, not a bad job.” 

Caro Blackman Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Front and Center

“I still had to smile and care about someone’s 60th wedding anniversary.” 

Like all those in customer service jobs, restaurant and bar industry employees who work in the dining room or behind the bar, commonly referred to as “front-of-house” positions, have to hide their struggles, no matter how severe, especially since most rely on tips for income. 

“It means having to be the best version of yourself for 12 hours a day, six days a week,” says Kapri Robinson, a bartender at Reliable Tavern. “It only causes you to take those frustrations, anger, sadness, anxiety, and pain and put it in a box in your mind for a long period of time until it fills up. It can be damaging.” 

Robinson says her customers count on her to have a positive attitude. “When I’m not smiling I get, ‘Where’s your energy today?,’ or, ‘She’s a bitch.’ Man, when you have a bad day I’m not saying shit to you. I work for tips.” 

“You have to compartmentalize,” says Caro Blackman, a host at Maydan. “I think human beings have our own traumas. We have our own baggage. The long hours, the deadlines, the demands. Having to produce at a very high level consistently. You don’t get a break. You don’t get to leave your tables for a while.” 

Though she exudes hospitality, smiling on the job was herculean for 13 of the 25 years Blackman has worked in D.C.’s restaurant industry because of a domestic violence situation that almost took her life. 

“I showed up for work for a week with two black eyes from my abusive relationship and I lied about it and said I had an allergic reaction,” she says. “I still had to smile and care about someone’s 60th wedding anniversary. There are so many people like me who are doing the same thing now.”

Servers, bartenders, and hosts are also subjected to harassment from guests. Several front-of-house employees report to City Paper a feeling that the public, and therefore their customers, look down on them. They sense this when patrons don’t make eye contact, or speak to them in demeaning tones. If a customer says or does something inappropriate, there’s hardly enough time in a fast-paced restaurant to go somewhere private to regroup.

Blackman says that excessively mean online reviews can pile on the pain. “There’s not a lot of compassion behind these Yelpers,” she says. “It really breaks my heart because they don’t know that [a review] might be the one thing that sends someone over the edge. Diners need to understand that just as much as they’re human beings coming into an establishment, we’re human beings coming in with the best intentions every day, pushing through things they don’t know.”

“Adding alcohol into the mix makes it a little more unique,” says Liz Cox, a bartender and former general manager at El Camino. “With retail, customers don’t tend to be four shots in. People get angry and there’s the concept that, ‘You have to do everything I say because I’m tipping you.’ If you ever want to see a man get really, really mad, have a female bartender tell him no.” 

Longtime DC 9 bartender Symone Wilson adds that some patrons turn violent. “Having violence perpetrated against you, having things thrown at you, maybe they don’t tip or don’t tip appropriately, sometimes you get men who are handsy,” she says. On rare occasions when she can step away, she jokes that her move is to scream into the ice machine or the walk-in refrigerator. “You’re an octopus with your hands in so many situations, managing so many egos, trying to crank out service with a smile.” 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Managers in the Middle

“People underestimate how much managers can make your work really awesome or a living hell.” 

Cox encourages her colleagues to change jobs if they feel that their managers don’t support them, and she impresses on operators the importance of hiring compassionate managers. “There’s a huge shortage in the hospitality labor supply,” she says. The District’s development boom has birthed an exceptionally large freshman class of restaurants. “You don’t have to let a bar owner or a manager treat you like dirt.”

Managers have power on their side. They typically make the schedule, determining which employees work the most lucrative shifts in terms of tips. They grant or deny requests for time off. Sometimes they hire and fire. “In terms of mental health, people underestimate how much managers can make your work really awesome or a living hell,” Cox says. 

“A lot of the most egregious harassment comes from management,” adds Lizzie Palumbo, who currently works as the tasting room manager at DC Brau. She’s been a server at Brookland’s Finest Bar & Kitchen, Capitol Lounge, and several H Street NE restaurants. “If you don’t have that support it can make everything else really unstable, especially if you’re dealing with mental health issues to begin with.” 

Palumbo was working at Toki Underground in 2011 when she was robbed at gunpoint by three men in front of her home. “It caused me to have PTSD because I was physically assaulted,” she explains. She felt she needed to immediately leave Toki, which had just opened, and seek a less stressful job while she coped with the initial shock. 

She went to H Street Country Club and told the managers about her diagnosis. “I keep randomly having panic attacks, but I need to make money right now,” she says she told them. “The fact that they were like, ‘Come back, we’re here for you. If you don’t want to work downstairs because it’s too busy, it’s fine.’” 

Ultimately Palumbo needed a time-out from restaurants and accepted a job at a doggy daycare and rescue facility. “But me being able to be transparent and them saying, ‘You’re a fantastic employee, we want to support you however we can,’ was huge.” 

“It’s not easy to deal with mental health issues, especially at work because of the stigma attached,” says H Street Country Club co-owner Ricardo Vergara. “Lizzie was open about what she was going through, but I’m sure we did not know the full extent of her panic attacks. I’m happy we were able to accommodate her.” 

Like Palumbo, Cori Bryant had to take a break from the industry after trauma. She was the assistant general manager at Comet Ping Pong during Pizzagate in 2016. The debunked alt-right conspiracy theory held that the pizza joint was involved in a child sex-trafficking ring. In December of that year, Edgar Maddison Welch fired three shots into the restaurant using an AR-15-style rifle while “investigating” Pizzagate. No one was injured.

“I wasn’t there that day, but I was there for getting harassed to the point where we couldn’t answer the phone for five months,” Bryant says. To this day a ringing phone is a trigger for her, and the experience led her to press pause on restaurants and work for an insurance company for a year. Today she’s quick to counsel other restaurants receiving threats. 

Bryant, who has managed at Tryst and Atomic Billiards, believes managers play the most important role in trying situations. “Every industry only works for the people who are directly above them,” Bryant says. “That’s why people quit. They don’t quit companies. They quit managers.”

Managers are often the go-between when there’s friction between kitchen and dining room employees. What should be a symbiotic relationship can become strained because of long-term tensions over issues like pay disparities or acute problems like a server burying the kitchen in orders.

Asked about her worst day on the job, Robinson talks about a time she “got into it with a chef” at a prior place of employment. The general manager pressured her into a sit-down with the chef to hash it out. “When chef summons you, you need to go,” he told her. “There are great chefs out there, but the ego thing is real,” Robinson says. “Having those personalities can break you down. People take that stuff home.” 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In the Kitchen

“The nature of the business is that small mistakes are so much more noticeable than hard-fought successes.”

Chefs and cooks face their own set of stressors, and there’s little reprieve since sick days and vacations are rare compared to other professions. Their bodies take beatings from working long hours around knives, fire, and slippery surfaces.

For the executive chef whose name is attached to a restaurant and flaunted in reviews, the job can be full of peaks and valleys. Anxiety and depression accompany the fear of falling short as they chase fame and esteem—or at least enough butts in seats to pay the rent. 

But behind the head chef are back-up singers with their own sets of hardships as they do battle against the clock in a repetitive grind. They bandage physical and emotional wounds and keep going. They’re passionate creatives with vastly different backgrounds. A kitchen is a place of second chances, where a person with an unwavering work ethic can find an open door.

“It’s a thankless job,” says Marcus Bradley Donovan, the executive sous chef at The Oval Room. He’s been in the industry for 20 years and at one point owned a restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland, that shuttered in 2012. “The top guys get credit, but behind José [Andrés] there are hundreds of guys and girls who don’t get thanking. They cut themselves, burn themselves for hours because they love what they do. Initially we all start out loving what we do, but it takes a toll.” 

He talks about how the schedule begets isolation. “If you get two days off in a row, the first day you’re sleeping,” he explains. “There’s just no time to have a life.” At his last job, Donovan was working 16-hour days, leaving little room for seeing friends and family. “It’s hard to maintain a relationship unless you’re dating a bartender or another cook.” 

Asked why he sticks with cooking, Donovan says he makes good money, even if the money doesn’t match the stress. “I love it and now I’m questioning why I keep abusing myself,” he says. “There’s no guide on how to survive in this industry.”

Unlike Donovan, Nathan Smith had to put restaurants in the rearview mirror. After cooking at several restaurants in Indianapolis, he’s pursuing a graduate degree in international economic relations at American University. 

“The nature of the business is that small mistakes are so much more noticeable than hard-fought successes,” he says, recalling his time in the kitchen. “What truly makes a good day is being mistake free because it’s pretty demoralizing when you make a mistake. You feel very vulnerable.”

Smith also struggled with how unpredictable the work can be. “Your job is defined by a battle between yourself and uncertainty unlike a lot of lines of work where you can plan ahead,” he says. 

Even if you’re not the one struggling, watching colleagues suffer has lingering effects. Smith’s most distressing day on the job came when one of his cooks slipped near the fryer, causing his arm to catch fire. “He had to have skin grafts and everything,” Smith recounts. “And he was very economically challenged as most people in the kitchen are.”

The cook eventually made it back to work, but got cancer and died soon after. “We had to raise money just so his family could afford to bury him,” Smith says. “Witnessing the unraveling of his life in slow motion is a big part of the answer of why I left cooking.” 

Now that he’s staring down a new career path, he’s noticing what the outside world thinks about his prior profession. “[Cooking] instills a lot of great, transferable skills to other sectors, but since it’s so poorly understood, it gets very little respect from the public … That’s why they feel isolated.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Chefs in the Shadows

“I don’t feel like I have an option to respond because I don’t have papers.”

Feelings of isolation only intensify for local workers who don’t speak English, many of whom are from El Salvador. D.C.’s restaurant boom continues to create employment opportunities, but the language barrier predisposes these workers to discrimination, abuse, and the risk of wage theft. 

“Sometimes I feel self-esteem suffers,” says Claudia Esteve, who provides mental health counseling to students at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. The school has a culinary training program and many of the students in English language classes work in restaurants. 

“Imagine being someone whose English is a second language and might not have a very high level of education from their home country, and being perpetually in a pressure environment,” Esteve continues. “Also imagine someone whose immigration status is uncertain.”

According to NAMI, Latinx communities are as susceptible to mental illness as the rest of the population, but they experience disparities in access to quality treatment. NAMI also says Latinx people are less likely to seek help because of the stigma associated with mental health.

A Latino man we’ll call Manuel, because he requested anonymity, used to work the fry station at a local Japanese restaurant. He liked the work because he felt pride whenever he composed a beautiful dish, but says his demanding schedule reduced his life to work and sleep. He clocked in at 11 a.m. and out at 11 p.m. six days a week. “Working 12 hours with no break is stressful,” he tells City Paper through a translator. “You can’t sit down except for 15 minutes to eat.” 

With his earnings, Manuel must pay rent at the one-bedroom D.C. apartment he shares with four adult male family members. He also sends money to his family in his home country and to his 7-year-old daughter and her mother in Maryland. City Paper interviewed four more immigrant restaurant workers who also support their families from afar. The average line cook salary in the District as of Oct. 2018 was $26,935 according to Salary.com. 

Two other aspects of Manuel’s job were trying. He wasn’t offered health insurance, and since the Japanese restaurant paid him in cash, he didn’t have a pay stub to use as proof of employment to obtain coverage on his own. A brother was able to add him as a dependent. 

He still struggled with the language barrier. “Many times I couldn’t understand what people were telling me,” he says. “I had to depend on coworkers to teach me. My boss would become irritated when I didn’t understand. He would yell, especially when food wasn’t ready fast enough.” 

Alberto, a second Latino restaurant worker who spoke anonymously, faced similar adversity at an Italian restaurant in D.C. “There is a sense of fear when you’re being yelled at and spoken harshly to,” he says in Spanish translated into English. “It’s intimidating. I don’t feel like I have an option to respond because I don’t have papers.”

He feels he’s set up to fail when a head chef arrives upset or angry, bringing his stress from outside into the workplace. “When something is going on with him, it affects everyone. It’s like a sickness that’s contagious.”

The job at the Italian restaurant came to an abrupt end. Alberto alerted his employer he was ill and needed to miss work. When he returned two days later, he was told, “A soccer team can’t play without its goalie. There’s no more work for you.’” 

After 19 years of working in D.C. restaurants, Alberto finally has a job he loves. It’s at a local branch of a New York-based restaurant with a corporate ownership structure. He has health insurance, transportation benefits, a flexible, 40-hour-week schedule, free meals, and more responsibility than ever before. 

It’s given him perspective. “Restaurants don’t care about workers’ personal problems or emotions,” he says. “The only thing that’s important is that they work. The current situation is much better. It feels like a family.” 

Mike Friedman and the staff of Red Hen Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Clapping Back at The Status Quo

“There are great operators in this town that share my viewpoints, but there are operators who have decided not to break the circle.”

Some of D.C.’s young chef-owners who climbed the ranks in toxic kitchens with screamers at the helm have elected to trash that playbook and inch toward more constructive work environments.

“We’re nurturing people, both guests and our employees,” says Rob Rubba. He led the kitchen at Hazel but departed in June and is gearing up to open a new D.C. restaurant, Oyster Oyster. “Those days of 80-hour work weeks don’t have to happen. You can organize a restaurant differently and have a smaller menu so you don’t have to prep a 40-item menu.” 

He worked for household names like Gordon Ramsay, and enough time has passed for him to remember his early days fondly. “There’s this romantic look back at it, like, ‘That was great,’” he says. “Then I’ll talk to my wife and she’ll say, ‘You were miserable. You weren’t happy. You were taking a beating every day.’” 

When Rubba was first stepping into leadership positions in kitchens he copied the behaviors of his mentors. “I really dug into people,” he says. “I saw it hurt people and worked to quickly remove that from my repertoire in management. Now I try not to replicate anything that those guys did.” 

Rubba believes kitchens are becoming more “family-like, more tribe-like” because the next generation of talent has higher expectations. “We’re going to nurture you and build you up because you have to be awesome for this industry to keep moving forward,” Rubba explains. 

Maydan’s Caro Blackman seconds that younger generations are behind cultural change. “Mental health is coming to the forefront because of millenials,” she says. “We’re used to shutting up and dealing with it … I’m excited about how this is going to mark a shift in the food and beverage industry in terms of how we’re caring for staff and having more balance. I think we’ll produce even better restaurants because of it.”

Mike Friedman of All-Purpose Pizzeria and The Red Hen is on board with work-life balance. “Everybody has a life outside of work and if you don’t accept that, that’s a problem,” he says. His three restaurants offer two weeks of vacation, five-day work weeks with two consecutive days off, and health insurance for salaried employees. He also builds open kitchens so cooks feel included. 

“For back-of-house and front-of-house to be successful, there can’t be a line,” he says. “You have to embolden servers and make them feel like they can come and ask the chefs questions.” Having an open kitchen also controls the environment because it’s in earshot of customers. Chefs are teaching instead of yelling. “There are great operators in this town that share my viewpoints, but there are operators who have decided not to break the circle.”

Friedman says he’s adopted hospitality titan Danny Meyer’s philosophy that restaurant leadership should take care of its staff and trust the staff to take care of customers. “If you’re not a happy worker, you’re not going to produce,” he says. “I can take a hit for someone to go get healthy. Some people can hold it in really well and not let it affect their work. I was good at that, but for me it led to substance abuse that I had to deal with.” 

Picked Their Poison

“When you have friends die. When you have people going to rehab. When you have families get broken up. There are real life consequences that come with that behavior.”

Bartender Trevor Frye had too much fun when he first shot onto the scene about five years ago with the opening of Dram & Grain. “The thing that makes working in bars so great is we throw a party every night,” he says. “But it’s also a huge danger. We’re dealing with alcohol and late nights. Anytime you put those in combination, some nefarious things work their way in. I’m not a choir boy. I’m guilty of getting wrapped up in that.”

Frye says he and his pals in their mid-twenties would walk out of work with $800 cash each on a regular basis. “Not the most responsible decisions are being made,” he says. “That’s why people burn out. When you have friends die. When you have people going to rehab. When families get broken up. There are real life consequences that come with that behavior.” 

Colleagues often double as social circles. Employees report boarding a hamster wheel of working, drinking, and sleeping. While the bonds they form with coworkers are strong enough to feel like family, eventually they can lose touch with their support networks outside of the industry. “I think a lot of younger people, the illusion is every night out is the greatest on earth,” Frye says. “When you’ve done it for years, you realize it’s the same shit every night.”

Bartenders describe drinking as a “crutch” or a way of self-medicating, especially since alcohol is within arm’s reach whenever they’re clocked in. Dr. Chelsea Eckhouse, a clinical supervisor at a substance abuse clinic in the D.C. area, agrees that self-medicating happens when individuals don’t have the proper tools to confront anxiety or depression. “I’ve never met a client with a substance abuse disorder that didn’t also have co-occurring mental health issues,” she says. According to NAMI, 50.5 percent of the 20.2 million adults who have a substance use disorder suffer from mental illness. 

Frye reached a breaking point in the winter of 2016 when he was launching his bar, Five to One. He was sleeping three hours per night and drowning in coffee. “I put myself in a full-on panic attack,” he says. “It got to the point where I fell down and couldn’t get out of my bathtub. I couldn’t move. I was able to call a friend who was able to come over and help me calm me down.” 

Five to One closed in May, and weeks later, Frye also announced his forthcoming Adams Morgan bar Marble Alley was no longer happening. “I’m at another point in my life where I have to pick up the pieces and realistically put them back together,” he says. 

Frye now owns his own bar consulting company and has reclaimed his mental health by focusing on exercise, therapy, his relationship with a significant other, and meditation. He wants to help others do the same. “It’s 100 percent OK to talk about not feeling good,” he says. 

Even the most buzzed about annual conference for bartenders, Tales of The Cocktail, is working to create dialogue about mental health and addiction. In addition to their traditional panels on spirits and innovation in July, there were sessions on “Building a Healthier, Happier Bar Industry,” how to administer NARCAN during opioid overdoses, the importance of eating and sleeping well, and taking care of injuries. There were also yoga classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. 

Frye, who has been both an awards judge and a panelist at the conference, has replaced nights out with workouts at Balance Gym. The fitness company has four gyms in the city. Managing partner Devin Maier put a program in place to help hospitality industry workers take back their health. He offers restaurants an affordable flat rate that allows anyone on staff to sweat it out. It’s a shrewd business move for Balance because restaurant workers use the facilities during off-peak times. Maier is filling empty gyms and at the same time providing a critical service. 

“Being able to grab a workout is a nice mental break in an industry that can be very high-stress and also very unhealthy,” he says. “There are a lot of guys caught in these really tough patterns.”

More restaurateurs are catching on to the benefit, including Adam Greenberg, who is readying to open Coconut Club. He’ll offer the Balance Gym membership to employees. “Devin is behind people really improving their lives,” he says. “I’m in a much better place as a person when I work out. I know what it does for me mentally.”

Sarah Jane Curran Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Shrinking Options

“I was struck by how much this woman didn’t understand our industry.”

Sarah Jane Curran, who has worked locally as the general manager of Birch & Barley and ChurchKey and a captain at Pineapple and Pearls, earned her chops at Eleven Madison Park in New York. She calls it a high-stress environment. “I can talk someone down from a panic attack just as well as I can talk someone through opening a bottle of champagne,” she says. The restaurant provided health insurance, which Curran used to seek out a therapist. She says it was challenging to find a doctor taking new patients who could accommodate her. 

“Once I got through all of that, I had a terrible experience of a therapist telling me, ‘The root of your problem is you have a terrible work schedule,’” Curran recalls. “I was struck by how much this woman didn’t understand our industry,” Curran says. “She had no idea at all.” 

The restaurant industry employs 14.7 million people nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association. That’s 10 percent of the overall U.S. workforce. In D.C., the hospitality industry is the second largest employment sector after the government. Yet, industry-specific resources are unicorns.

Curran hopes to change that. In September she led a working group about mental health at a conference aimed at uncovering answers to the industry’s most pressing issues. Women in Hospitality United, a group born out of the #MeToo movement, hosted the conference. Curran’s team envisioned a concierge service where restaurant workers could call or go online and find a therapist who has an appreciation for the industry, such as a psychologist who put herself through school waiting tables. “Our industry, though quirky, is not harmful as a whole,” Curran says.

Dr. Kathy HoganBruen doesn’t think restaurant experience is a prerequisite for effectively treating servers, bartenders, and chefs. She practices cognitive behavioral therapy at The Ross Center for Anxiety in Friendship Heights. “I don’t pretend to get it, but part of my job is to listen, ask questions, learn, and educate myself outside of work,” she says.

When first-time patients seek her counseling, she talks about a pyramid of needs. “The base is physical needs,” she says. “You need to make sure those are being met before moving up the ladder to mental health.” That means exercising, eating well, and sleeping unaided by drugs and alcohol. “In the restaurant industry, I can just imagine the pattern and how that exacerbates problems around living a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “A therapist can help identify places where some improvements can happen.”

HoganBruen doesn’t have many patients in the restaurant industry, noting The Ross Center doesn’t take insurance and charges a higher than average fee for an appointment. This isn’t uncommon. According to the American Psychological Association, about 30 percent of therapists nationwide do not accept insurance at all. 

When practitioners do take insurance, restaurant industry employees can find themselves shut out anyway. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s national numbers from 2014, only 14.4 percent of non-unionized restaurant workers received health insurance from their employer, compared to 48.7 percent of workers in other fields.

Mila Kofman of the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority, whose DC Health Link insurance marketplace has nearly 5,000 small businesses signed up for coverage, is working to increase offer rates in the industry through educational events and enrollment sessions on site at area restaurants. 

Those without insurance who cannot afford to pay out of pocket can turn to the city’s free safety net services under the purview of the Department of Behavioral Health. There’s a hotline staffed by trained clinicians and counselors (1-888-7WE-HELP) who can dispatch someone to a caller’s location for immediate assistance. There’s also an urgent care center at 35 K St. NE and emergency services through the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program that has extended observation beds for adults at 1905 E St. SE. For more long-term care, the city has a network of providers in all eight wards that offer reduced-fee services on a sliding scale based on income. 

Self Help

“Years later when I see other people going through stuff, I can be their hand in the darkness.”

Absent professional therapy, bar and restaurant workers get scrappy, finding coping mechanisms on their own or turning to each other for help. 

Those City Paper interviewed report using meditation apps, spending time outside, doing yoga, using cannabis to quell anxiety, and reading self-help books as coping mechanisms. Lina Nicolai, who co-owns Al Crostino and XX+ suffers from panic attacks and reads cognitive behavioral therapy books to recover. “I go to the Kramerbooks and sit on the patio with one of the books, have a beer or two for two hours, and I breathe through it to calm me down,” she says. 

Symone Wilson from DC 9 calls bartenders “interim therapists,” and wishes there was some formalized training for industry employees to learn to recognize mental illness warning signs in others. “We’ve lost so many people in the industry to suicide, overdoses, or drug addiction. We see those signs in our friends and try not to let people fall through the cracks,” she says. 

When Wilson started working at the club in 2012, she says there were several suicides in one year. “A bar manager knew I was struggling,” she says. “She gave me a book about forgiveness by the Dalai Lama. I was in this unreachable darkness and no one could get to me… Years later, when I see other people going through stuff, I can be their hand in the darkness.”