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1 in 10 Nevadans work in hospitality. The industry can take a toll on mental health

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo, a woman watches the fountains at the Bellagio hotel-casino along the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas.
John Locher
/
AP
FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo, a woman watches the fountains at the Bellagio hotel-casino along the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas.

More than one in 10 Nevadans work in the hospitality and entertainment industry.

About 360,000 people, in everything from singing and acting to serving and bartending to cleaning rooms and checking people in and out of hotels.

If you’ve done some of those jobs, we know the hours can be odd, the pressures intense, it can be back-breaking work, bending and lifting, always on your feet. And there’s pretty easy access to alcohol or drugs to help combat the adrenaline of a long day of work.

What’s less talked about, less studied, is the mental health of those workers. We couldn’t find a study based on Nevada workers. But one national study from 2015 found those in the hospitality industry as the most at-risk for substance abuse disorders.

Things are beginning to change, though. At the very least, there is more awareness.

THE MENTAL TOLL OF SERVICE AND ENTERTAINMENT

Ted Pappageorge, a local waiter with over 17 years of experience in the service industry, said it can be very draining.

"It's a stressful environment, and it's an environment where you're just giving all these parts of yourself all day. So, at the end of a shift, you just feel drained," said Pappageorge. "I worked at a brunch restaurant a few years back, and Saturdays and Sundays would be really busy. My family and I would have Sunday dinner, so I would get off work and go to my family's house but just be completely drained. I had zero gas in the tank to even communicate with them."

Pappageorge recalled another instance where his mental health affected him in the workplace.

"I went up to one of my guests to greet them at their tables, and I just had to do everything in my power to keep everything together, from kind of breaking down. And I was like, 'wow, this is not the place I want to be when I'm feeling like this."

Pappageorge also said it's easy to think that someone in the service industry just works, goes home, and goes to bed. But, after a busy shift, it's likely the night still goes on. Perhaps a night out with co-workers at a local bar to have a drink or a bite to eat is one way to decompress, but it can come with its own set of consequences when taken too far; especially when you're already dealing with mental health issues.

"You get off and you're like, I don't care. I'm gonna go out and have someone do something for me," said Pappageorge. "However, for me, it involved a lot of drinking, and what I didn't know at the time is that it was kind of numbing all of those issues. Then I got a little older, and I got tired of drinking all the time. When I took the numbing away, I was kind of left open and then I was in this area where I wanted to deal with these issues."

Another industry as big as hospitality and service in Las Vegas is entertainment; from big to small acts. Cam Calloway is a local musician and he said a recent suicide from a close friend and performer inspired him to take a deeper look into his own mental health.

"I realized, 'oh, I too am depressed.' His passing was a wake up call, and in a lot of ways made me kind of reflect on this environment that we're in."

Calloway said that from financial struggles, Vegas nightlife, to the industry's focus on profit, is what can exacerbate the mental health of local musicians.

"There is this expectation to always keep up, to always be productive," said Calloway. "And the moment you're not productive, you start to feel inadequate and start to feel like you don't matter. We love what we do, but because of business you have to adjust sometimes, and it's unfair. For example, you get gigs and and keep a good relationship with folks who might be talking to you in a certain way that's not cool. But, because they are the people paying you, you have to keep all that stuff in. For us as artists, that's not how we express ourselves in the world. I know for some, it's entertainment, but for us it's a deeper thing. Art is how we truly get our feelings out."

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Go online and you'd be hard pressed to find any local study on mental health in the service industry, but that doesn't stop professors like Kweisi Ausar, a UNLV College of Hospitality Professor, from researching the topic and trying to come up with tangible solutions.

Ausar worked in the service industry himself for over 20 years. He started as a waiter and slowly rose through the ranks, all the way to management. Now, he teaches hospitality leadership. Ausar said it's important for a boss to have a high quality relationship with their employees.

"As a leader, we have to attend to the needs of all of our people, which means that there needs to be a high quality exchange on an ongoing basis with everybody that's on your team," said Ausar. "People know when you genuinely care about them, to the extent that a boss can reflect the kind of empathy that's necessary to see when somebody may be going through something. They may not be talking about it, but there's something wrong. That goes a long way in letting that person know that, 'hey, this organization cares for me. My boss really does have my best interest at heart."

Ausar also said organizations might not want to address mental health issues for fear of making them look bad, but he makes the argument that a healthy employee will help any company's profit margin.

"The employee experience will never exceed the guest experience. So, if you want guests to have great experiences, your employees have to have great experiences."

There are also local organizations taking matters into their own hands. The Love Yourself Foundation, a mental health and wellness non-profit, is launching a fundraiser for a new telehealth platform that offers free mental health care resources to those in the service and entertainment industry.

Like Cam Calloway, director and founder of the foundation, Monica Garcia, was impacted by a recent suicide and it motivated her to act.

"I know there are resources out there. But again, just seeing what happened with my friend that passed, he was trying to get help. But, unfortunately, this system was too slow," said Garcia. "In order to hopefully capture more people that would like to get help, we'd introduce a new resource that can be there to help people that might need it, and perhaps a little bit faster. When we're talking about somebody that's in survival mode, dealing with suicidal ideation, it really is a matter of time. In order to try to save more lives, I think this program could really help."

Garcia's foundation found that both the entertainment and service industry shared a lot of the same struggles. They hope the telehealth program, since it would be virtual, could end up being more accessible.

Garcia and her foundation aim to raise about 200,000 thousand dollars to launch the two year pilot program. The fundraising will also kick-off with an event on March 12th at 6PM. All proceeds will go towards the telehealth mental health care program. The event will feature performances, panel discussions focusing on mental health in the service and entertainment industry, live paintings and more.


Guests: Monica Garcia, director and founder, The Love Yourself Foundation; Ted Pappageorge, waiter; Cam Calloway, musician; Kweisi Ausar, professor, UNLV’s School of Hospitality

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Christopher Alvarez is a news producer and podcast audio editor at Nevada Public Radio for the State of Nevada program, and has been with them for over a year.