The Most Critical Barista Training? It Could Be Mental Health

While it’s not often acknowledged, baristas in the Bay Area—and in cities around the world—deal with mental health crises every day. Since many work in city centers with high rates of homelessness and mental illness, helping visitors and customers in crisis makes up a significant part of their routine. On top of that, baristas work in a taxing profession that can exacerbate mental illness on their side of the bar. But, despite frequent encounters with mental health crises, baristas rarely receive training on how to recognize and de-escalate these crises while getting people safely to treatment.

Enter Mental Health First Aid instructor Cat Willett, who partnered up with BACC (Bay Area Coffee Community) to host a ground-breaking Mental Health First Aid Training for baristas. Held on October 4th at Counter Culture Coffee’s Emeryville training center, the nationally-certified course focused on demystifying signs and symptoms of common mental health issues, offering a five-step plan to help anyone experiencing a mental health problem. Rather than focusing on specific medical skills, the group looked at basic strategies to keep someone experiencing a crisis—or living with a longer-term illness—safe until they can get connected to a consistent care provider.

While mental health first aid trainings are nothing new, this is the first of its kind offered specifically to coffee workers. While researching a series for Sprudge on mental health in coffee work, BACC organizer and coffee marketer Jenn Chen noticed that while most people are aware that physical first aid certification courses are important to workplaces, the stigma attached to mental health has prevented people from recognizing and addressing the need for mental health first aid. When she heard about Willett’s courses, she knew she wanted to bring them to baristas in the Bay.

Cat Willett

Willett also sees a need for baristas, in particular, to train on mental health first aid as a facet of customer service. “As a person who worked a variety of retail jobs before getting into mental health work,” Willet tells Sprudge, “I received way more training on how to make correct change or close the shop than I ever did about how to handle someone who was acting aggressively or asking for help I didn’t know how to offer.”

After a few icebreakers, the group delved into the symptoms of depression and anxiety, focusing specifically on how to address acute mental health situations like suicidality and panic attacks that result from chronic mental illness. Using role play and discussion, they worked through realistic scenarios while focusing on the importance of direct communication during crises. They then learned about psychosis and how to help those dealing with hallucinations or delusions to stay safe and get professional care, using similar but tailored strategies. In addition to an extensive list of groups that offer help to those dealing with chronic or acute mental health situations, the group came away with a detailed manual on mental health issues and resources for continued education.

“It was a lot of material to cover in a short amount of time, but by the end, I felt comfortable identifying some good and bad ways of communicating during a crisis,” said Chen. Ellan Kline, Retail Trainer at Ritual Coffee Roasters (and in full disclosure, my spouse) said that the de-escalation strategies she learned in the course will help just as much with difficult customers who aren’t necessarily going through mental health crises. And Christy Greenwald, Ritual cafe manager, said she felt more equipped to address mental health situations in her cafe, both preventatively with staff and as a first aid measure with anyone in the cafe, from staff to customers to walk-ins.

Attendees I talked to all expressed the emphatic desire for more events like this in the future. Kline said that she hopes this event, which teaches helpful general skills on mental health crises, will lead to more that are specific to customer service. Talya Strader, Retail District Manager for Equator Coffees & Teas, said that while she would absolutely want to see more events like this, that events like this can trigger participants to examine their own mental health awareness, “so be prepared to do some unpacking of your own.”

Chen and Willett are both glad they were able to make this event happen and fill it close to capacity. “1 in 5 adult Americans have a mental health condition,” said Chen. “If it’s not you, then it’s someone in your family or in your workplace.” A core part of Willett’s approach is that these trainings should be accessible to as many people as possible. “I have a deep belief that it shouldn’t take four years or cost $40,000 for people to know how brains—their own and other people’s—work and how to support people with mental health issues,” she said. “That should be common knowledge. So I was thrilled to be able to provide this training.”

Barista work is emotionally challenging, and Willett and the BACC worked together to bring those challenges to light and equip baristas with the skills they need to meet their day-to-day with the same level of professionalism and education that they bring to other parts of their career. While this idea is ground-breaking now, the need is clear and the organizers hope that companies will be inspired to get more coffee workers certified. If events like these catch on, mental health first aid training may one day come to be considered as essential to the barista profession as learning how to pour latte art.

RJ Joseph (@RJ_Sproseph) is a Sprudge staff writer, publisher of Queer Cup, and coffee professional based in the Bay Area. Read more RJ Joseph on Sprudge Media Network. 


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