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Depresstaurants: Whitney Cardona

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Read the first in the Depresstaurants series here.

After publishing the opening of Depresstaurants, C2 Catering executive pastry chef Whitney Cardona reached out to talk about her experiences with mental illness, the restaurant industry and where the two overlap.

“I've found two kinds of people really stay in the restaurant industry: Those who love what they do and those that feel they have no other option,” Cardona said. “Kitchens don't always pay well, but they constantly need people and have a high turnover.”

Even if you’ve had problems in the past, the need for warm bodies with a modicum of experience outweighs a lot of other concerns for restaurant owners and managers.

“Mental illness affects about one in every four people, but that seems to double in restaurants, and how restaurants work shows that to be true,” she said. “One of the places I've worked specifically outlined in their health coverage that they would not cover mental health treatments whatsoever, because it's so frequent in the industry, it's a huge cost to them.”

But because it’s so prevalent, there’s a good chance many of your coworkers have the same issues you have.

Need a Xanax? Someone's definitely got one.  

“In almost any other place I've worked, you had to keep that bottled up, or you'd have someone from HR down your throat faster than you could curse," Cardona said. "Mental health issues anywhere else are seen as a huge liability and avoided. Companies will say they're inclusive of disabilities, but it's a disability that's underdiagnosed and often disregarded, so it's treated as just an attitude problem, which gets you fired, not given help. In restaurants, you may be sent home, but more than likely, you'll still have a job the next day.”

Basically, if restaurants got rid of everyone with a mental health issue, they wouldn’t have enough employees to stay open.

Cardona comes from a few areas of experience. After years of “attitude issues” she was finally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at age 21.

Her career in food didn’t begin until 24. Before that, she was working toward a degree in psychology.

“While it was a subject I loved, it wasn't my passion,” she said. “If there's anything you learn while studying psychology, it's that what you surround yourself with affects your mentality. If what you're doing with your life doesn't make you happy, you probably won't be happy.”

For her, that meant making food for people.

“When what you do is something you're passionate about and makes you happy, it shows in your work,” she said. That sent her up the ladder from working the salad station at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse to the bakery and, the next year, she was hired as head baker at Scottie’s Deli. Now she’s the executive pastry chef for C2 Catering.

It’s a job she loves, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Restaurant kitchens are (figurative) pressure cookers.

“There's rarely stopping, taking a break,” she said. 

At any point, one mistake can just cause a domino effect. I won't lie; this has caused panic and strain on my mental health on occasion, but doing what I love made it so much easier to deal with.

Every job has stress, but this is the one line of work where she knew she wasn’t alone.

“In every place I've worked, I'd say at least 40-50 percent of the people I've worked with had some kind of mental health issue they were coping with. Whether it was generalized anxiety or depression, addiction, or a personality disorder, it was amazing the number of people who were going through the same thing,” Cardona said. “It was almost a relief at times, and it made people much more understanding of what was going on. But it also meant having to deal with everyone's backlash if it happened.”

The stigma is diminished, because others are so clearly going through their own issues, she said.

“There almost wasn't a reason to really confide, because it was almost a given. If you needed help, you just needed to ask, and someone would understand. I was scared at first, but as I learned how many other people were dealing with their own issues, I felt safer. I wasn't going to lose my job because I had a panic attack. I wasn't going to be reprimanded for what was out of my control. I just had to do my job, and I loved my job. Now I'm pretty up front if something is happening. I've learned coping mechanisms and ways to ask for help.”

Some of that may come back to Cardona’s education. Not everyone is as adept at recognizing their own symptoms and addressing them, which can lead to less-healthy coping mechanisms.

She said the majority of those suffering from mental illness go untreated and one of the biggest is the social stigma.

“It's not a point of weakness. Literally every person can benefit from seeing someone regarding mental health,” she said. “However, healthcare makes it difficult. It's seen as a specialist treatment, normally coupled with higher costs. Even though a few mental illnesses are regarded as a disability, they're under-recognized by workplaces and people are reprimanded when they're suffering. In the restaurant industry, these numbers just increase.

“I can guarantee at least one of your friends suffers from a mental illness. Probably more. And there's a good chance they don't even recognize it,” she said. “It's up to all of us, for society, for our loved ones, for ourselves, to recognize the differences, the changes, or just make it part of our day, to make sure we're all okay. It’s the least we can do, but it matters so much.”

Special thanks to graphic designer Erin DeMoss for creating the Depresstaurants logo. Learn more about her services here.

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Do you have a personal story about mental illness in the restaurant industry you'd like to share? Contact me at greg@iateoklahoma.com.

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About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.

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The Details

Do you have a personal story about mental illness in the restaurant industry you'd like to share? Contact me at greg@iateoklahoma.com.

Must Haves

Other Features

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