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free mental healthcare

Chris Shepherd's charity offers free mental health care to restaurant workers

Houston charity offers free mental health care to restaurant workers

Southern Smoke 2018 Chris Shepherd Pitmaker smoker
The Southern Smoke Foundation has a new initiative to help hospitality workers.  Photo by Catchlight Photography

The restaurant industry is battling an immediate enemy in the form of the financial disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but it has long term problems that also need solutions. One of the most pressing is access to mental health treatment for industry workers.

Houston’s Southern Smoke Foundation has developed a new program that provides Texas hospitality workers — and their children — free mental healthcare through a partnership with Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the University of Houston Department of Psychology.

“We’re just trying to eliminate all of the barriers to people getting the help that they need,” Southern Smoke executive director Kathryn Lott tells CultureMap.

Southern Smoke has been an important resource for hospitality workers who have been effected by the coronavirus pandemic. Since the crisis began, it has distributed more than $1.8 million in assistance.

For Lott, the effort to add this programming goes back to 2018 when Anthony Bourdain’s suicide prompted an industry-wise conversation about mental health. In a roundtable discussion at that year’s Southern Smoke Festival with Shepherd and other chefs, Lott developed the idea for an industry-specific mental health resource.

They described it as a “hotline,’ and Lott says she went about setting up a dedicated phone number people could call for assistance with issues like drug abuse and depression. As it was coming together, she started speaking to the staff at Georgia James, Shepherd’s luxurious steakhouse, about the plan.

“I’m talking to the cooks and the waitstaff and someone says ‘we don’t make phone calls.’ We can text you our problems,” Lott recalls. “Back to the drawing board. This being online video conferencing I think is going to be the right outlet.”

Now, industry workers can access a page dedicated to mental health on Southern Smoke’s website. Once they fill out a form, the foundation will connect the person with the University of Houston. Ph.D. students will conduct interviews and work with John P. Vincent, Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Center for Forensic Psychology at the University of Houston, and Carla Sharp, Ph.D,  Professor and Director of Clinical Training, to develop treatment plans.

“The long and the short of it is that it can either just be a resource for support for a one time, ‘I just need to talk to someone’ or it can be an entire plan that this team comes up with for you specifically for the long term,” Lott says.

If a person needs medication, UH will direct them to resources that will help them obtain it at a reasonable cost. If that’s still too expensive, they can apply to Southern Smoke for financial assistance.

“When chef Chris Shepherd and Southern Smoke approached us a few months ago to create a mental health safety net for the uninsured and underinsured in Houston’s restaurant industry, we were excited about the possibilities,” Renae Vania Tomczak, CEO of Mental Health America of Greater Houston, said in a statement. “We had to move more swiftly than originally planned to help people who were now out of work and reeling from anxiety, stress, and depression. I am proud of what we have accomplished so far with the help our friends at the University of Houston.”