10 Austin bakeries spark mental health conversations, 1 cupcake at a time

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, 10 Austin-area bakeries are helping promote honest conversations surrounding mental health this May — one cupcake at a time.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Central Texas, or NAMI Central Texas, launched its Depressed Cake Shop initiative four years ago as a means of removing the stigmas surrounding mental health conditions. This year, 10 bakeries put their baking skills to the test and crafted homemade sweet treats with elements of gray to highlight the struggles of mental illness, paired with bursts of color that represent sources of healing. 

For Karen Fry, owner of Dream Bakery in North Austin, mental health awareness is as much a means of public advocacy as it is a topic near to her heart. For the past three years, she has participated in NAMI Central Texas’s Depressed Cake Shop campaign to put her support on display.

Her 18 year-old son struggles with anxiety and depression, something she said is common for others diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Her 15 year-old daughter began a residential treatment program for anorexia in January.

“The more I’ve spoken up, the more support I’ve gotten from the most unexpected places,” Fry said. “Asking for the help you need, offering the help you can provide is the first step towards de-stigmatizing this and bringing the mental health conversation more into the mainstream.”

The idea for the Depressed Cake Shop started in the U.K. before making its way to the U.S., said Karen Ranus, executive director of NAMI Central Texas. Ranus said she’s particularly fond of the initiative’s accompanying tagline: “Where there’s cake, there’s hope — and there’s always cake.”

After a pilot run during the first year of the series that didn’t gain much traction, Ranus said NAMI Central Texas pivoted to a new model. For the past three years, NAMI Central Texas has approached interested bakeries and tasked them with adding their own creative spin to the gray design.

The pervasiveness of mental health has made this challenge particularly poignant for some participating bakeries, Ranus said. She recalled one bakery the nonprofit previously worked with whose original owner died by suicide.

One in five people struggle with a mental health condition, Ranus said. For those who are not, the initiative is an opportunity to put one’s alliance and support on public display.

“I think a lot of the bakeries quickly bought on because they all have been impacted in some way,” she said, adding: “And the truth is if it’s not you, if you’re not the one, you’re probably one of the folks that love and support that individual.”

The coronavirus pandemic has served as an adverse catalyst for many already struggling with mental health conditions, Fry said. Coupled with the financial implications small business owners faced, she added this year’s series is particularly poignant to her and her family’s journey.

When designing this year’s batch of desserts, Fry opted to go with an eye-catching design: gray frowning faces that, when bitten into, burst with multi-colored sprinkles. Other offerings include silver cookies, and gray cakes with rainbow swirls inside.

Some customers specifically seek out Dream Bakery during May, knowing the shop offers mental health-friendly sweet treats each spring. Others stumble across the designs unintentionally, which provides a chance for further public outreach and conversations, Fry said.

“A lot of people are like, wow, that’s really cool, and sometimes they start to talk about experiences they’ve had or somebody that they know that needs help,” she said. “So it’s a way to engage in the dialogue in a non-threatening way, whether you know what’s happening already, or you’re just kind of getting to be part of the conversation for the first time.”

The root of all stigmas surrounding mental health conditions is the shame that often accompanies those struggling, Ranus said. The power of frank, open dialogues is their ability to instill confidence, understanding and access to what resources are available.

“We are here to feed people, body and soul,” Fry said. “And so hearing that they enjoy our treats, but also hearing that we’ve done something to support them and to help them on their journey is just incredibly gratifying.”

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