It would feel almost eerie if it wasn't just so damn sad.
This week, the suicides of two prominent American personalities — one in fashion, the other in food — once again force us to face a health crisis we've been ignoring and stigmatizing for so long, it's reached epidemic levels.
The suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef, writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain happened the same week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an alarming report about suicide in the U.S. Some states have seen a more than 50-percent increase in suicides since 1999, a trend showing major increases in almost every age, race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic group. Guns were involved in almost half of American suicides, the most prevalent method used by people ending their own lives in this country.
Even more disconcerting: "Fifty-four percent of the people who killed themselves didn't have a previously known mental health issue," NPR reports, meaning there were few signs leading up to that person's death.
There are tiny graveyards growing in our Facebook and Instagram friend lists, unsettling digital tombstones for the ones we've lost. For the most part, we forget they're there — dead men post no status updates — until they pop up quietly on birthdays and anniversaries. How many people among your social media connections died from suicide or substance abuse? If you really took the time to count, it would be sobering.
The service industry is perhaps more attuned than others to both substance abuse and mental health — it has to be. It's known for attracting "outsiders" and those for whom day jobs and suits feel like fitting a round peg in a square hole. Bourdain told the tales of rampant drug use and mental health issues that plague modern American kitchens. Those honest descriptions brought him to our collective attention after the critical acclaim for his first memoir, Kitchen Confidential.
Chad Houser, executive director of Café Momentum, has felt an influence from Bourdain for years.
"I had been in cooking for about a year and picked up a copy of Kitchen Confidential and damn near read it in one sitting," he says. "It was just kind of at that point in time where you make the choice to cook for a living, and then you're working 90 hours a week and you're having an absolute blast, but you're peeling potatoes for a living and having cursing contests, and I was like, 'Am I just avoiding growing up, is this normal life?'
"Then I read that book, and it was what I needed to hear: enjoy the process, enjoy the ride, and it was so cathartic, it was so motivating, validating."
Years later, in 2015, Houser would open Café Momentum, a restaurant serving meals while uplifting at-risk youth. It didn't take long for him to discover the needs of these young adults, who had more asks than he felt he was adequate to serve, he says.
A few months in, the Dallas Museum of Art invited him to cater an event where they were hosting Bourdain.
"Bourdain's publisher came and grabbed me [at the event] and said, 'You need to come meet Tony,' and I didn't want to be that guy — that's so uncool, that's so un-Bourdain-like," he says.
But he did anyway.
"He stopped everything he was doing, turned to me and said, 'I love what you do and thank you for doing it,' and it put me right back in that place when I read Kitchen Confidential, and I thought everything's going to be OK, just enjoy the ride."
The service industry is dealing with a lot right now: labor shortages, oversaturation, wage gaps, gentrification, rising rents, waste. But one of its biggest issues is the one that's most roundly ignored in a sector of the American workforce known for offering fewer benefits, less health insurance coverage and less paid sick time. If an employee can't afford the out-of-pocket costs for a visit to the doctor — along with the unpaid time off — for a virus or an injured foot, what hope is there for those who need serious medical attention for a disease with affects that aren't as readily apparent?
"There's a lot of alcoholism and drug addiction in our industry, and I feel like there's too much cliquish bullshit, division, nobody wants to hold each other up," Dallas chef Justin Box, who has spoken candidly about his substance abuse in the past, said in an interview today. "I think if our elders in our industry in general would come together with more love on certain topics ... just a simple reaching out to someone, and asking how's their day. Even if you don't respect them as a chef, they're still a human. It's your industry, we need to take responsibility."
"His book and subsequent TV shows helped me through serious depression in my life," David Pena, chef at Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House, posted Friday on Facebook. "They inspired me to follow the passion for food I have now. He will be more than missed, and will never know the impact he had on so many of us. Never take those things for granted. Be there, listen, don’t judge. Mental illness has taken so many of us. It’s OK to ask for help, and it’s OK to take it."
A number of Dallas chefs had connections, however fleeting, to Bourdain, via working with him, restaurant visits or just in passing. An even larger part of the Dallas service industry saw him as an inspiration, a surly, foul-mouthed, hardworking mentor from afar.
"The world lost an amazing person today," Dallas chef Cody Sharp posted on Facebook. "His writing and life has inspired so many in this industry. When will mental wellness become a serious conversation?"
We've rounded up a few public social media posts from Dallas chefs remembering Anthony Bourdain.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health issues or suicidal ideation, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There are local resources as well: Foundation45 in Deep Ellum deals with mental health and substance abuse issues in the music, arts and service industries.