Zach Verwey is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the Business Director of Khesed Wellness, a Denver-based nonprofit that makes mental health therapy affordable for the underinsured. Having a background in hospitality management, Zach spent many years working in restaurants and food service, and now utilizes his training and licensure as a mental health therapist to advocate for greater mental health access in the hospitality industry.
Although I now work in the world of mental health, my first love has always been restaurants. Before studying to become a therapist, I went to school for Hospitality Management, and I worked in a variety of restaurant and food service settings all through high school, college, and grad school. I often tell people that if you have never worked in a restaurant before, it is difficult to understand what it is like. It is an entirely unique experience, for better and for worse.
Having grown up in a strict religious environment, restaurants became my safe haven; a place to fully explore my identity and values outside the bounds of rigid rules and expectations. While I was in graduate school, I worked in a restaurant where the joke was that “in order to be hired, you had to at least be a little curious,” and it was in that environment of acceptance and open-mindedness that I finally felt safe enough to publicly come out as gay. Most of my coworkers were members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the relationships that formed while in the weeds of serving and bartending together gave me a family who accepted and celebrated my identity and process in a way I knew my actual family may not.
Yet, I couldn’t help but notice during those years that much of restaurant culture was in direct conflict with what I was learning in my clinical mental health classes. The food and beverage industry has been named one of the unhealthiest industries when it comes to mental health, and the restaurant industry suffers some of the highest rates of mental illness in any field. On any given day, I’d leave an Addictions class, or finish a therapeutic communication workshop, or turn in a research paper on the importance of boundaries and self-care, and drive downtown to work a 10-hour night shift of high stress, nonconsensual touch, and getting screamed at by the kitchen staff. And, if I didn’t have an early class the next morning, there were after-shift drinks and substances of all kinds to help blow off steam when it was over.
Given that many of my coworkers were also LGBTQ+, furthermore, I also began to learn about the unique mental health struggles that impact our community. Because of the various ways LGBTQ+ individuals experience oppression and marginalization, those of us who identify within the community already tend to demonstrate higher rates of anxiety, depression, and mental health need than our straight, cis counterparts. For those of us who then also find ourselves working in restaurant and bar settings, this can make practicing good mental health and wellness especially difficult.
Thankfully, that is changing. After I left hospitality to become a full-time therapist, I continued to pay attention to how the restaurant industry was talking about mental health. A few short years ago, you could find approximately one article discussing the mental health of restaurant workers. Now, in response to tragic events like the passing of Anthony Bourdain and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing awareness that what we’ve been doing in the restaurant industry isn’t working. Mental health is essential to doing the work we love sustainably, and when it comes to working in a restaurant, it’s important to talk about mental health with others who get what it’s actually like.
I joined CHOW because they are offering a space to do just that. Contrary to what the research suggests, I believe the time I spent in restaurants was the best thing that could have happened for my own personal mental health. The safe haven they provided me gave me the opportunity to live with pride, and now as a mental health therapist, I want to give that gift back. There are many wonderful things about working in a restaurant, and with the right resources and support in place, I believe there is an opportunity for all of us to one day look back at the time we’ve spent in them and know that it was the best thing that could have happened for our mental health. And I believe the first step is to talk about it.