Part of what drew Sam Hellman-Mass to the restaurant industry is the people. Since he started his career as a line cook, the owner of East Austin restaurant Suerte said he fell in love with the community that took care of its own and banded together to help any member of the tribe through tough times.

But those same difficult conditions that create such a tight-knit service community can also create serious mental health challenges in the industry, according to Jaime Telfayen, the executive director of Capital Area Counseling.

Long and irregular hours in a high-stress environment can lead many service industry workers to alcohol or drugs to cope. And in an industry in which the median nationwide hourly wage is $12.45 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, financial stress can lead to its own mental health issues.

"The restaurant and bar industry has always had a lot of amazing, colorful characters. That's what makes it so fun to go out to eat, especially in a city like Austin," Hellman-Mass said. "Supporting the mental health of those people is really important."

Last year, Suerte and a group of nine other local restaurants and bars started a program to expand mental health care access for their employees in partnership with Capital Area Counseling.

The Mike and Sherry Project, named for Mike Shefman and Sherry Greenberg, staples in the local Austin dining scene, grew over the course of the year to additional restaurant partners, who agreed to cover the cost of appointments if their employees could not come up with the CAC's fees on their own.

To date, the project has helped provide more than 1,000 sessions since June 1, 2019, and received more than $12,000 in donations. But in mid-March, when orders to shut down restaurant dining rooms decimated the industry, the need for those mental health services grew.

Hellman-Mass said after the layoffs began sweeping the restaurant and bar industry, he saw the number of appointments staff were scheduling at CAC drop significantly.

"That probably isn’t because people don’t need help. People need help more than ever. They’ve lost a community of co-workers. A lot of people are very isolated right now," he said.

Telfayen said she could see the effect of the layoffs immediately. CAC's services are offered at a sliding scale, with fees ranging from $15 to $60 from an all-volunteer team of counselors including post-graduate and pregraduate students or licensed professionals.

Service industry clients who were in therapy to focus on other issues—whether those be relationships or anything else going on in their life—were now focused on how to get by day by day without a source of income, and with so much uncertainty, many canceled counseling sessions because they were worried about the fees.

"Even the folks spending $15, they didn't want to spend $1, because they were so unsure," Telfayen said.

The restaurant industry has, in the words of Hellman-Mass, been "broken" by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 600,000 Texans in service jobs have been laid off, according to a study by the National Restaurant Association.

To help more of those service industry workers struggling, The Mike and Sherry Project is expanding its mission.

Previously, the program served a group of employees at about 20 participating Austin restaurants and bars. Now, funds donated will allow service industry workers from any Austin restaurant or bar to receive funding assistance for an appointment at CAC so cost is not a barrier to finding help through this difficult time.

"We understand people don't have the funds to spend. We don't want them to stop getting services," Telfayen said.