Raising the Bar on Mental Health

Written by: Patricia Richards

The hospitality industry can be demanding working long, busy hours on our feet—oftentimes with little-to-no reprieve. We serve everyone from our reliable regulars to impatient, demanding, and indecisive guests. Then, there are the various accents and culturally normative behaviors for us to discern. Some behaviors are frowned down upon in American society, such as not tipping, not being mindful of our personal space, or “talking down” to us. So how do we navigate so much at once while ensuring our guests are taken care of in a polite and timely fashion?

Photo showing frustration and depression.

Bartenders successfully navigate our demanding industry by wearing several different hats at once. As needed, we assume the role of employee, co-worker, hospitality professional, host, brand ambassador, interpreter, comedian, friend, mentor, educator, food server, therapist, spiritual guru, and/or security officer. Bartenders must also remain calm and in control “Ninja Warriors,” while in the midst of a stress-inducing Saturday night shit storm of service well tickets. Over time, bartending can take a toll on one’s health with lower back pain, muscle tension, varicose veins, repetitive motion injuries, and burnout. Also—if left unchecked—imbibing after work to unwind can morph into a slippery slope of habituation, dependence, addiction, and even more health issues!

Practicing self-care is therefore of utmost importance, not only for one’s biopsychosocial health, but also for one’s (industry) longevity. When we take care of our brain, for example, by eating a healthy diet, by taking an Omega 3 fatty acid supplement, exercising, and getting enough sleep, we feel better, we can think more clearly, and we make better life-enhancing decisions. By taking care of ourselves first, we take better care of others, including our guests at the bar.


No Wealth Without Mental Health

In 2014 at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, mental health was a hot topic of discussion, where over twenty sessions were held on topics such as mental illness, dementia, and mindfulness. According to a WEF commissioned study, mental illnesses—especially anxiety and mood disorders—are considered a threat to workplace productivity. In this study, “mental disorders emerged as the single largest health cost with global projections increasing to $6 trillion annually by 2030.” WEF speakers stressed the importance of mental health research, implementing better brain health policies, and prioritizing mental health care in order for nations to succeed in future “brain-based STEM economies.” They also stated that there is “no health without mental health,” since mental disorders greatly increase one’s risk for other chronic, non-communicable diseases.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide,” with over 300 million people living with this disorder. Depression is also a risk factor for substance use disorders and suicide, which claims almost 800,000 lives per year, and is a leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds. WHO stated that “investment in mental health makes economic sense” as every one U.S. dollar invested in “treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of four U.S. dollars in better health and ability to work.” In high-income developed countries like the U.S., nearly 50% of people with depression do not get treatment and numbers are even higher in low-income countries with fewer resources. In April 2017, WHO launched a Depression: let’s talk campaign to help reduce the stigma, prejudice, and discrimination associated with mental illness, as cultural taboos and fear of stigma may prevent those afflicted from seeking help.

Alcohol is a drug and is classified as a depressant, so even moderate consumption can have an adverse effect on one’s mental health. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the highest rates of heavy alcohol use, illicit drug use and substance use disorder (SUD) by industry, were seen in “mining, construction, and the accommodations and food service industries.” By contrast, the lowest rates of consumption were seen in “education, healthcare and social assistance, as well as public administration.” It appears that there are industries/occupations that elicit a culture of use, to the detriment of employers, who complain of “lost productivity, workplace accidents and injuries, employee absenteeism, low morale, and increased illness.” It may make economic sense for businesses to implement workplace health programs, which have been shown to increase employee morale, productivity, and retention, while lowering absenteeism, insurance premiums, and worker’s compensation claims.


Food as Medicine Vs. Poison

Question: Are you regularly ingesting processed food made with ingredients you hardly recognize, or are you eating fresh, organic foods, which have been lightly prepared?

Image of garlic and lemon to indicate healing properties.

A journal article from Lancet Psychiatry January 2015, states that our brain relies on nutrients such as Omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, antioxidants, Vitamins B and D, and minerals like zinc and magnesium to promote mental health. Eating a traditional whole foods diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet is believed to be protective “against the pathogenesis of mental disorders.” Participants of such diets were found to have a “reduced prevalence of and risk for, depression and suicide.” Also important is eating three healthy meals a day and a snack between lunch and dinner, to avoid the irritability that comes with low blood sugar.

By contrast, our industrial food supply, which includes countless foods high in calories and low in nutritive value (i.e.: Twinkies and fast food), not only exacerbates our country’s current obesity epidemic, but also increases the prevalence of chronic diseases and mental health disorders. Research has found a correlation between the gut microbiome and mental health in an emerging field called psychoneuroimmunology, and “nutritional quality and mental health” in an emerging field called “nutritional medicine.” Today, it has become more important than ever before, to be an informed and conscious consumer, in order to protect your health and the health of your loved ones.

Stress and Mental Health

Chronic, low-grade stress can seem commonplace in today’s urban, high tech, fast-paced world. Not only are human beings in developed countries processing information at a faster rate than our evolutionary forefathers, but we are also sitting more, which increases our risk for “chronic, long-term health problems” (APA). In Time Magazine’s The Science of Exercise Edition, exercise is often prescribed “to patients with depression and anxiety, as mood-boosting brain chemicals—serotonin and endorphins—are found to ease pain and increase pleasure, while lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”

In small doses, stress is good for us, like when we feel energized and mentally focused during a busy shift at work. However, “chronic stress that is left unchecked, or poorly managed, is known to contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and suicide” (APA). Chronic stress can result from living in an abusive relationship, from living in poverty, dealing with insurmountable debt, taking care of a special needs child, and/or working at a job you despise. Everyone reacts to stress differently, so it’s important to listen to your body for warning signs such as: “upset stomach, fatigue, irritability, short temper, anxiety, headaches and muscle tension in the neck or back, chest pains, rapid heartbeat, lack of concentration/focus, forgetfulness, sleep difficulties, jitters, and either loss of appetite, or overeating of comfort foods.”

We can manage stress more effectively by exercising, by not over-committing ourselves, and by prioritizing our lives. That means spending more of your valuable time on the things that really matter to you, and little to no time on the things that don’t. Cultivating positive emotions is also beneficial for your health, as they strengthen your immune system. Besides, stressful situations have less of an impact on us when we are feeling positive! Additional ways to manage stress include journal writing, mindfulness practice, meditation, yoga, qigong, walking in nature, listening to soothing music, deep breathing exercises, and acupuncture, which work by activating our calming parasympathetic nervous system.

Connection is Why We Are Here

For those suffering from depression, talking to a person they trust is often the first step toward treatment and recovery. The WHO states that talking therapy and/or antidepressant medication could help reduce anxiety and depression. The APA similarly recommends psychotherapy with a licensed psychologist as an effective treatment for depression, which may or may not include antidepressant medication. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), in order to “protect people from declining mental health, mental health policies should be aimed at prevention and focus on building coping skills, fostering stress resilience and strengthening ties with family and friends.” In July 2016, the House of Representatives responded, by passing a mental health bill, H.R. 2646, called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

Family showing happy mother and child.

Employers could also prioritize mental health, by offering “family meals” which are important for staff bonding, as is creating healthy, positive, team building workplaces. Additionally, employers could offer affordable health insurance, corporate wellness programs, flexible work schedules, and employee assistance programs such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Such offerings have been shown in research, to improve employee’s mental health, which translates into higher morale, increased productivity, and higher employee retention.

I can’t help but ponder that as inextricably linked as we are via social media and the Internet, that at the same time, we are very much disconnected. We are disconnected from our ancestor-selves who hunted and foraged and lived in harmony with the biorhythms of nature. In those days we used to know where our food came from, and the village we lived in was our extended family. Today, many of us don’t even know who our neighbors are, and our family members are scattered across the globe. I believe as a culture, that we are in such endless materialistic pursuit, that we have forgotten about what’s really important. And that is genuine connection.

Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.

-Brené Brown

Perhaps this is a partial explanation for our current global, mental health crisis. We are so busy pointing fingers from behind our social media walls that we don’t take the time to genuinely connect and understand one another. As bartenders, we have a unique opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. We have the unique opportunity to hear their stories, to laugh with them, to learn and grow from them, and most importantly, to connect with them.

The bar can be a place of healing, if we create a space for healing to happen.

-Patricia Richards


Disclaimer: The advice in this post is meant to serve as a resource for readers seeking ideas about how they might experience improved health and wellness. Before attempting any of these suggestions, it is recommended to check-in with a qualified medical professional. The views and/or presentation do not and shall not be considered as a professional advice. Although we endeavor to provide accurate and timely information, there can be no guarantee that such information is accurate as of the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future. Furthermore, the above viewpoints and opinions may not represent the views or values of Wongu University.



Additional Resources:

American Psychological Association

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:  (800) 273-8255

Psychologist Locator

Photo of writer.

About the Writer

I’m a native of Vancouver, Canada and I currently reside in Las Vegas, Nevada. I have worked in the hospitality industry for over 30 years, as a cook, food server, bartender and manager. I began working in Las Vegas, as a bartender in 2003 and a few years later, I became the first female property mixologist on the Las Vegas Strip, having implemented and run the mixology program at Wynn & Encore Casino/Resorts (2007-2013).

In 2014, I co-founded Mind-Body-Spirits, teaching the bar industry about health & wellness initiatives https://www.facebook.com/mindbodyspirts/. In 2017, I became the first USBGLV Health & Wellness committee chair and a National USBG Joint Health & Wellness committee member where we volunteer our time, educating and promoting healthier bartender communities.

I have always been passionate about self-care and CAM practices which has allowed me to enjoy a long and fruitful 30+ year career in the hospitality industry. In October 2017, I began graduate school at Wongu University of Oriental Medicine while working as a part-time bartender. My long-term goal is to become self-employed in my own health & wellness practice and to work as a healer, a writer, and a teacher.


Find me on social media:


Twitter: @PatriciaRichrds

Instagram: @patriciarichrds