As COVID-19 cases and ensuing safety measures continue to rise in many parts of North America, so do the peripheral casualties. The hospitality and food and beverage sectors are particularly vulnerable to the devastating economic, social, and mental health impacts because of fundamentally fragile infrastructures and a lack of resources.
A sharp rise in mental health issues including deaths by suicide, exacerbated by the pandemic, sounded the alarm for Toronto-based non-profit organization Not 9 to 5 and propelled them into action to create a practical and meaningful solution. Aptly named CNECTing, this online foodservice mental health platform aims to bring members of the community together through education using credible resources.
“Our industry already had epidemic levels of mental health and substance use. Some of the key risk factors for mental health challenges like isolation, financial strain, and job insecurity are being exasperated by the pandemic and it’s like pouring grease on a fire,” says Not 9 to 5 co-founder Ariel Coplan.
Change Needs Everyone Coming Together
With enough research demonstrating that mental health education and training can save lives, co-founders Hassel Aviles and Coplan set out to do just that. Within the confines of pandemic limitations, they successfully secured funding (through the Canadian Red Cross), created a coalition comprised of individuals and some industry giants, enlisted the aid of certified and credible mental health experts familiar with the unique dynamics of their industry and, collectively, created an online educational platform for the community. By design, it was created by the industry for the industry.
CNECT is an acronym for “Change Needs Everyone Coming Together.” When Aviles and Coplan created the program, they acknowledged that much of the work would be based on the premise that keeping people connected would be crucial to its success. Because of recent prolonged periods of isolation, there needed to be an emphasis on staying connected with oneself, immediate support networks like family and friends, and also making connections to new sources of support.
The first course by CNECTing focuses on the industry’s mental health primary concerns. Called Primary Concerns, it aims to educate and train individuals in mental health and substance use support skills to identify, understand, and respond to crisis situations.
The program will go live on November 2 of this year.
A global reach
The course material was inspired by courses that offer aid for mental health and psychological safety and written in everyday language to ensure accessibility to all individuals who need it. The industry-specific mental health course is for all hospitality and food and beverage service workers in Canada, U.S., and worldwide. Currently, Primary Concerns is available in English only, with plans to expand with additional languages in 2021.
The urgent need for this crucial tool has already received overwhelming support from the community – from back-of-house workers to major professional organizations including James Beard Foundation, Black Food Folks in the U.S., Restaurants Canada, and the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI).
There has also been no shortage of notable industry heavy-hitters leveraging their public prominence to amplify the program. Canadian chef Matty Matheson, who has consistently advocated for improving industry standards, believes everyone could use help and that Primary Concerns is a tangible solution.
“I think one of the biggest things that can change is the general hierarchy in restaurants. It needs to be more of a conversation. The chef is certainly not always right. I certainly was not right often. And I was surrounded by able people that could have guided me if I chose to listen and I didn’t have to because the systems were in place that I didn’t have to. And I’m looking forward to building new restaurants and working with people to make a great restaurant,” says Matheson.
Also on board is Canadian chef, food creative, and host Jennifer Crawford who is lending her voice to get industry workers to break stigmas and seek help.
One of the most vulnerable groups even within the industry is the bartending sector. Amanda Chen, a prominent bartender and mixology educator in Toronto, encourages her colleagues to connect with the invaluable tools that CNECTing offers.
Moving forward together
As the hospitality, food and beverage industry reels from the heightened stresses and traumas induced by the pandemic, Aviles believes this is a crucial time to scrutinize the existing systemic cracks and to reimagine and build a stronger and healthier infrastructure.
“There is so much emphasis on the sustainability and ethical treatment of the ingredients that we use in our menus. I am trying to push us to have the same focus on the ethical treatment of the people that are producing, growing, serving, and creating everything that we consume,” says Aviles.
About Not 9 to 5
Not 9 to 5 is a non-profit organization empowering hospitality and food and beverage service workers by mobilizing education and support for mental health and substance use. Not 9 to 5 promotes harm reduction practices and helps to connect the hospitality workforce to mental wellness resources.