Although Bakst has maintained his sobriety for four decades, he’s watched others wrestle with those same demons. Along the way, one friend, a Charleston chef named Ben Murray, lost the battle, taking his own life in 2016 after years of struggling with addiction and depression. The loss prompted Bakst and restaurateur Steve Palmer, who has also grappled with substance abuse and addiction, to take action.
“In our careers, we have watched so many people destroy their lives due to drugs and alcohol,” Bakst says. So the pair started Ben’s Friends, an organization that offers support and community
to restaurant workers on the path to sobriety, as well as those who have already achieved it.
Drug addiction is the mental health issue most often associated with the restaurant world, but that’s not to imply it’s the only illness to afflict the industry—far from it. Bakst says more recent conversations surrounding mental health struggles, like depression, weren’t openly discussed on a large scale until the death of Anthony Bourdain in 2018. He believes Bourdain’s suicide has been a turning point for the industry.
“That’s where I believe the seed of this new dialogue has come from,” he says.
Acknowledging mental health
According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, 52.9 million people in the U.S. experienced some form of mental illness in 2020. That translates to one in five struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.
Statistics related to the foodservice world are even more telling. A survey conducted by the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America found that food and beverage was among the unhealthiest industries in the country across various criteria, such as burnout, lack of supervisor support, financial instability, and negative mental health outcomes. Other consistently unhealthy industries included manufacturing, retail, and automotive
Per the same survey, half of all F&B workers felt the stress from their jobs “always or often” affected relationships outside of work.
Problems that start small can snowball, particularly in an industry whose innately celebratory nature can easily spill over into employees’ personal lives. Forty-three percent of workers reported relying on unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking, as a means of coping with stressors from the workplace, according to Mental Health America.