Far away from the green fields and enforced jollity of The Great British Bake Off is a land with a distinctly grey hue. This place is home to The Depressed Cake Shop, a pop-up that uses baked goods to raise awareness of mental health issues.
Established by Emma Thomas (a.k.a. Miss Cakehead, a specialist in edible PR campaigns), The Depressed Cake Shop concept is open to any baker willing to hold a pop-up and donate profits from the sales of their cakes to a mental health charity. The only rule is that all cakes, biscuits, and any other baked goods sold must be grey.
Unlike the obvious symbolism of phrases including “having the blues” or being “under a black cloud,” the colour grey is perhaps closer to capturing the hidden nature of many mental health issues. The Cake Shop’s signature cake features a thick layer of grey icing which, when cut open, reveals a bright, rainbow sponge interior.
With one in four British adults suffering from a mental illness at some point in their life, many of those behind the country’s Cake Shop pop-ups have been personally affected by mental health issues. Julie Langdale is one of the volunteers at the Cake Shop’s Glasgow branch, which has been going since 2013.
“About a month before Depressed Cake Shop officially got going, my best friend killed himself and I was completely grief stricken,” she says. “I’d always used baking as a way to cope with things, so it all came together at the right or—depending how you look at it—wrong time.”
Health awareness campaigns may reach out from billboards and laptop screens, but cake offers an approachable and more tangible way to talk about mental health. For Langdale, the baking itself also has benefits.
“I’m on the autism spectrum, so I respond really well to processes, direction, and that’s what recipes are—really tasty processes,” she says. “There’s something in the measuring and sifting, where you don’t have to think and everything slips away so it’s just you and what you are making.”
Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind agrees, adding that the act of baking can boost mental wellbeing.
“Even if things don’t quite turn out as you’d hoped, just the processes involved can be therapeutic,” he says. “The careful practise of weighing and combining ingredients, or decorating your bake, can be almost meditative and allow you to completely switch off from negative or worrying thoughts that may be on your mind.”
Baking can also incorporate existing techniques recommended by many mental health workers as an aid to stress, such as mindfulness.
“You can apply mindfulness to baking in a literal hands on way,” says Langdale. “Allowing yourself to enjoy the sensation of feeling the flour in your fingers, the different textures and smells.”
The Depressed Cake Shop pop-ups also provide a chance for bakers to socialise with those who may experience similar mental health issues. The project’s Glasgow organisers have plans to establish a social enterprise bakery, giving the pop-up a permanent outpost and providing a wider forum for people to meet and discuss mental health.
“There is strong evidence that indicates feeling close to, and valued by, other people is a fundamental human need and one that contributes to mental wellbeing,” notes Buckley. “Baking can help by bringing people together in sharing recipes or enjoying the finished product over a cup of tea and a chat.”
The Depressed Cakes themselves come in all varieties: sponges, Swiss rolls, cookies, meringues, macarons, and cupcakes. Bakers display similar variety when it comes to naming their creations. At the Glasgow pop-up, I find Anxious Oreos, the Rocky Road of Doom, Black Forest of Depression Push Pops, and Shattered Cupcakes, as well as cloud-shaped biscuits glazed in grey icing.
The contribution of local, amateur bakers is an important part of the Cake Shop’s accessibility, but the project has also drawn support from bigger players in the world of baking, such as Leeds-based food artist Lou Lou P (of cat loaf fame).
“I don’t have the confidence to stage the pop-up shops. I have bipolar and regularly experience problems leaving the house,” she says. “My contribution to The Depressed Cake Shop is through baking one-off pieces, these I then disseminate over social media.”
Inspiration for Lou’s “The Silence” cupcake derived from a news item regarding a mentally unwell woman.
“She had previously been in minor troubles with the law which led to her claims of rape being disbelieved by the police,” explains Lou. “Evidence was later found which validated her story, but the damage had been done. Assumptions had been made by those meant to protect her, proving that stigma and discrimination is still thriving in our society.”
With this in mind, Lou used an unassuming cupcake base as a blank canvas to add a disembodied mouth, violently sewn shut. “I don’t like to sugar coat my bakes,” she adds.
For Lou and other Depressed Cake Shop bakers, cake isn’t just a sugary food item, it’s a therapeutic outlet and a way to talk about the mental health issues often overlooked by society.
“Some people write journals, some write down their negative thoughts and burn them in the breeze,” says Lou. “I bake cakes and then eat them.”