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Community Bars Have Therapeutic Elements, MSW Student Says


Fordham MSW student Kailey McGarvey thinks the local watering hole is more than just an establishment of intoxication. Past the dusty bottles behind the counter and the beer-stained, velcro-stick floors, McGarvey finds beauty. In fact, she’d say those things are part of its beauty. 

“A bar is a microcosm of the world,” McGarvey said. 

And at the center of its universe stands the bartender, slinging a Tom Collins or shaking a Cosmopolitan. However, McGarvey says these misfit mixologists’ magic doesn’t come from a glass — but from connection. 

“Bars are often looked at as places of substance use…but there’s also this community,” she said. “The bartender is basically a first responder in their community.”

Last semester, McGarvey presented on this topic in Washington, D.C., at the NEXT Generation of Change Agents Respond to the Grand Challenges of Social Work conference. Her presentation, “Dive Bars: Driving Connection and Mental Wellness for Older Adults,” drew parallels between the relationships formed at bars and those cultivated through the therapeutic process. McGarvey and two classmates who completed a separate presentation represented the Graduate School of Service as one of six colleges and universities presenting at the conference. 

A Quarantine Realization

This isn’t the first time McGarvey’s work has intersected with Washington, D.C. After her undergraduate education, she worked in politics—doing fundraising and outreach for Congress members. However, McGarvey’s love was for writing, and she set her sights on acquiring a public relations role. 

Her political position gave McGarvey the experience she needed to find work at a PR firm, realizing her dream of making a living through words. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the dream faded, and reality set in — she didn’t actually enjoy the work. 

“It was just writing, staring at a laptop in your room for 12 hours, and that was it,” she said. “I’m like, ‘this is not how to live.’”

Luckily, McGarvey found some inspiration through her clients, most of whom were nonprofit organizations. McGarvey would help the nonprofits with their brand messaging; one of her main duties was preparing the nonprofit’s clients for television interviews. But the more she did this, the more she wanted her work to help the people, not the brand. 

“I was working with a nonprofit that provided resources for single moms living in poverty, and I was interviewing the moms to go on TV to speak about the nonprofit,” McGarvey said. “But I was like, I wish I could just sit down and speak to this mom about her life for her, not for the benefit of anyone else. And I was like, oh, that’s therapy.”

The “New Normal” Discovery

In 2021, following the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, McGarvey made some of her first in-person social interactions at her local bar in Queens. After having been “locked in a room for a year” working in PR, McGarvey said transitioning back into normalcy wasn’t easy. However, she made note of one population whose social skills hadn’t suffered — bartenders. 

“I would watch the bartenders and how they interacted with their patrons,” she said. “It would change the course of the patrons’ day, like, they would come in to see their bartender.”

McGarvey started Fordham’s MSW program in January 2022. As she watched the interactions between bartenders and their community, she saw signs of concepts she’d learned in class, like transference and counter-transference — likening the relationship to one between a therapist and their clients. 

McGarvey presenting her research in Washington, D.C.

McGarvey presenting her research in Washington, D.C.

“As a bartender, you’re kind of putting on this persona. Your patrons don’t know you personally, but they project what they need to think about you,” she said. “The bartender always has this unconditional positive regard in the same way a therapist might.”

An NPR article McGarvey read for class showed a similar story — a Tennessee initiative that brought mental health training to barbershops, a business whose success relies on trust and community. This was enough for McGarvey to submit a presentation proposal outlining the importance of bars in the community, especially for older men. A few months later, she was presenting in front of academics from across the country. 

“The premise of my presentation was basically that social work is already in the community, and if we want to meet clients where they’re at, an overlooked spot is the local dive bar,” she said. 

A Relationship with Therapeutic Elements

McGarvey recognizes that bartenders, in most cases, are not trained clinicians. Her presentation notes the distinction by stating that the relationship between bartenders and their patrons is not therapeutic but has therapeutic elements and effects. 

Moreover, she wants to destigmatize the bar as a place of reckless indulgence and highlight the positive influences these environments can bring. 

“Rather than thinking of bars as a place of risk, consider the community-building, networking, and sharing of resources that goes on,” her presentation read. 

As a bartender herself, McGarvey sees these positive impacts on a daily basis. She began working at a Long Island bar after leaving the public relations world and needing a job that fit her school schedule. Referring to her regular patrons as “my guys,” McGarvey said the bar is a network for these older men who may never seek a clinician’s services due to social pressures. 

“Most of these guys, they’re divorced. They’re retired. So they don’t have these networks,” she said. “And the bar is like the community that catches them.”

The bar owner employing McGarvey has seen this connection for decades. She said he has recounted stories of firemen and policemen coming to his establishment in the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks, pulling him aside, and crying on his shoulder. The bartender is there to console them, McGarvey said. However, she continued, who is there to support the bartender? 

“[After I graduate], I will have this training, and if I need something, I’ll have this network of people that are dealing with hearing other peoples’ intense emotional experiences of trauma, and they know how to speak about it,” McGarvey said. “My bartender colleagues—it probably affects them in ways that they don’t know about, and they don’t know how to process and manage it.”

When Worlds Collide

In her field placement at the Training Institute for Mental Health, McGarvey sees eight individuals in her therapeutic caseload. The experience has taught her that she is exactly where she wants to be.

“It’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for this whole time,” she said. 

She said the experience in D.C. has been formative in her MSW education. The opportunity to voice her ideas on a platform where the audience truly cared was “insane”.

After graduation this May, McGarvey hopes to continue pursuing this clinical path, particularly focusing on men’s mental health. 

“I have a lot of men on my caseload [in my field placement], and I’m always learning from how they are processing things,” she said, “and how they view situations. Then I can provide this other perspective.”


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