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A Drinkin Man's Psychiatrist


A Drinkin Man's Psychiatrist

Keyatta Mincey has seen folks from all walks of life end up on a barstool in front of her in the Midtown Atlanta lounge where she works.  And it’s not the drinks—it’s the atmosphere that provides a comforting familiarity.

Text: Rahkia Nance
Atlanta Master Mixologist: Keyatta Mincey

Keyatta Mincey has seen folks from all walks of life end up on a barstool in front of her in the Midtown Atlanta lounge where she works.  And it’s not the drinks—it’s the atmosphere that provides a comforting familiarity.

“People don’t wanna be around strangers,” she said. “I can make your day instantly better by putting a drink in front of you. I’m the last thing of an already bad day… they may take it out on me, or they could be just venting on how bad their day was.”

Bartenders, ready with a sympathetic ear and easy conversation, often end up being asked to play a role akin to impromptu therapists as customers share their troubles. Though it’s a popular escape and social contact can be therapeutic, bars and bartenders are no substitute for mental health treatment, said Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist.

The relationships that develop between a bartender and a regular customer can seem similar to those that develop between a mental health professional and a client, but the differences are important ones.

“They’re people you’re around who are receptive to you talking to them, but they’re not part of your normal social circle,” she said, comparing the two. “There’s something potentially helpful about that, a person on the periphery of your life that is in this circumscribed relationship. Sometimes it can be easier to discuss harder, emotionally charged topics with people who aren’t as close.”

But the boundaries that exist between a bartender and a customer are much looser than those between a patient and his or her therapist. That relationship never goes beyond the walls of a therapist’s office, but for some bartenders, such as Jackie Robinson, those relationships can become closer.

Over the years working as a bartender in Birmingham, Alabama, Robinson had chatted with her fair share of women who had problems with their romantic partners.

“It got to a point where it was so bad, this girl ended up having to come stay with me,” she said.

The young lady was a regular at the bar in the city’s Ensley neighborhood, and poured out the details of her life as Robinson poured cocktails.

Robinson said she didn’t have to think twice about opening her home. For her, it was a natural thing to do, rooted in her church upbringing and the example set by her grandmother, her namesake.

“My grandmother was the bootlegger in the neighborhood, but also known for taking people in,” she said. “She always had a house full of people who were not related, but just down on their luck. I thought, ‘That’s what grandmamma did, and if I have the facility to do that, then I’ll do that too.’”

That’s a scenario that would be ethically problematic in a professional mental health setting, Vinson said. Trained mental health professionals practice in accordance with certain standards that don’t apply to bartenders, Vinson said.

While a bartender/customer relationship can transition to a friendship, that should not be the case with a mental health professional. For example, mental health professionals are expected to respect certain boundaries with clients and to not have meaningful interactions with them outside of the therapeutic relationship/space. This helps to protect the professional’s objectivity and the patient’s privacy. Also, mental health professionals, with few exceptions, must keep what they are told confidential. Even with boundaries and limited interactions, both bartenders and mental health professionals can be themselves affected by the things they hear. Listening to people’s hardships may cause them to experience vicarious trauma the trauma that comes from exposure to others’ experiences. 

Now a bartender at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, the hub for business activity in the city and state, Robinson’s clientele are more transient than the regulars at her old bar in the city’s Ensley neighborhood, but still have the same worries and concerns. In Atlanta, Mincey, like Robinson, hears her fair share of stories, but finds they fall into one of three categories: work, family or love.

“When people are happy, they drink. When they’re sad, they drink. When they celebrate,  they drink. When they don’t know how to feel they drink . . and that’s what connects us,” she said. “You feel nobody understands. Somebody always understands.”

Mincey recalled a woman who had come into the bar recently, visibly upset. She ordered a burger and a beer, and shared that she had just been dumped by her boyfriend of 10 years.

“’He told me he found someone better,’” Mincey said, recalling the conversation. Mincey sat with woman to comfort her, staying with her even after her shift had ended.

“I haven’t seen her since. I can only hope she realized she’s better than the situation.”

Though grabbing a drink and chatting up a bartender can be easier than booking an appointment with a therapist, Vinson said some problems are best to sort out with a professional.

“If someone has issues that are causing serious distress; has decreased function socially, academically or occupationally; or is questioning if life is worth living, the bar is clearly not the place to go with those things,” Vinson said. “Do people talk about that sort of stuff at bars? Sure, but, there are all sorts of risks of having that as the default or sole outlet.” Suicidal thoughts expressed while someone is intoxicated should also be a cause of concern and a reason for professional help. Vinson said, “It’s true that some people will say things about being suicidal when they’re drunk, but most drunk people don’t do that. It’s still a red flag that’s it’s not just a tough day they need to talk out, but that there are some underlying issues that should be addressed.”