By Vince Gerasole

CHICAGO (CBS)–Disturbing rates of suicide and substance abuse in the restaurant industry have been swept under the rug for years, but change may be coming from within the industry, and a Pilsen restaurant is leading the way.

The Illinois Restaurant Association says nearly 600,000 people work in food service statewide.

Recognizing the industry is not immune to the effects of mental illness, the Illinois Restaurant Association is supporting nationwide efforts this year to increase the accessibility of mental health services.

Charles Ford is the general manager of restaurant S.K.Y. As a suicide survivor and a 16-year restaurant industry veteran, Ford is sharing his battles with mental illness in an effort to help others.

Ford says he gets a rush from serving clients, but his passion for the restaurant industry has come with a price.

A customer-service focused profession like his requires constantly having to please clients and deliver top-notch service.

“That can take a person and work them down into nothing,” Ford said.

Three years ago, the unrelenting pressures of the restaurant industry led Ford to three suicide attempts within eight months.

“I could have done 99 things right in a day and I would go home thinking about the one thing wrong that I did and that’s what got to me,” Ford said.

The suicide earlier this year of Chef Anthony Bourdain hit the restaurant world hard. It’s a world where media glitz often hides the darker sides of its challenges.

Bourdain’s suicide convinced Ford to come forward with his story.

“These are people within three square blocks, handfuls (of restaurants) that have the same problem,” Ford said.

Concrete data on the suicide rate within the restaurant industry is hard to come by, but numbers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggest the food service profession is susceptible to illicit drug use and heavy alcohol use.

“I think the industry 100 percent knows it has a problem,” said Stephen Gillanders, who works at S.K.Y. as the executive chef. “I saw a chef take overcooked food from a garbage can and rub it in someone’s face–you said anything, you were next in line.”

Business partners, Ford and Gillanders are now working together to create a healthier work environment by

“I decided you know what, we are going to have an alcohol free kitchen,” Gillanders said.

Ford said he’s hoping a small change in his restaurant will catch on with others.

“Hopefully we can create a movement and hopefully that becomes normal,” Ford said.


Vince Gerasole