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Seriously? What do restaurants have to do with mental health?

By Carol Castrillon.

I was having lunch with a client recently and he mentioned something in passing which has stuck with me. 

Backstory – his company, a large corporate, has been working remotely since COVID struck, in mid-March last year. It is now almost a year later …

He told me that he and a group of colleagues had met the previous week for a face-to-face catch up. They had not seen each other since remote working had started, though they had interacted regularly over their company’s online platform. Naturally the conversation started by asking after each other’s health and wellness. It then moved swiftly onto work (which they really thought they would not talk about!). They spent the entire lunch excitedly discussing work.  That is complaining, laughing and essentially debriefing following months of hard lockdown. He said that despite not thinking they would talk about work (because it’s surely boring!) it felt so good to talk to people about content that only colleagues can understand. Regardless of the support structure at home, there’s something necessary about offloading to a sympathetic ear. 

This got me really thinking – if we have been lucky enough to physically escape the virus – what has this blasted pandemic done to our mental-health?  

I know that there have many been stories about how families have been drawn closer, how teenagers recollected themselves, how working from home has been so very good because it’s made us all more productive. I really don’t dispute any of this.

And yet there is more to the story for sure. Throw-away chats at the office. Planned or unplanned cups of coffee with a friend. A shared conversation over a meal. We know this to be true – they nourish us mentally and physically.

We are mostly social animals. Even my most homebound and socially-awkward friends have mused that ‘people need people’. We can drive each other mad – but we do still seem to need each other.

Europe and the UK have recently experienced their latest harsh COVID wave. As such, we have all had more shutdowns. During this period, restaurants in our area have only been able to serve takeaways. I was walking through my little town’s square a couple of weeks ago. And guess what? People are sitting outside their usual coffee spots drinking a takeaway coffee, watching the world go by. Some are solo, others are socially distanced on a park bench, sipping a coffee and eating a sandwich with a friend. 

Despite this unchartered new normal, restaurants have such an important place in our lives. They bring us closer together. The excuse is food…but the kernel – the true reason we like to share food – is that we need to share our space with each other. Restaurants bring us closer together mentally. They are therapy for many – a place where we get to talk about politics, our fears and dreams and express our emotions. We get to commiserate when times are bad – feared job losses, mourned deaths – with people who will hear us and feel for and with us. We get to celebrate successes with the people who share our joy – engagements, babies, graduations and promotions. 

How can we help give back to an industry that has been knocked sideways? 

One way in which we can all help is to spend our money in smaller, more locally-based establishments. Try as much as possible to avoid the large multinational chains in favour of the family or individually-owned businesses. By supporting your local restaurants, you become part of recreating the success of your local economy. 

To the restaurant owners and workers – the magic of having a restaurant is that you provide the safe space for us to be human. So thank you … while I’m certain you’ve seen your share of tears of pain and tears of joy, this past year has proven how very much we need you.

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