Bake on track: Mental patients run bakery in Beijing
Would you try some bread made by mentally ill patients?
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness would cause many people to simply say, “no.” But one bakery in Beijing is challenging those stereotypes and using baking to help those with mental illnesses on the road to recovery.
Nine patients from Chaoyang District Mental Health Service Center, a privately run institution for people with mental illness in a Beijing suburb, are running a bakery, producing different types of bread ranging from cinnamon rolls, croissants, and baguettes.
The patients were hesitant about taking up baking at first when two foreign volunteers first suggested the idea back in 2004 as a way of rehabilitation. They were worried that they wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure of working in a bakery, and due to the stigma and lack of understanding surrounding mental illness, no one would eat anything made by them.
Twelve years later, the bakery has become a daily routine for many of the people receiving treatment. Some of the patients have worked in the bakery since it started, while others are new recruits. As for the fear that no one would buy the bread they produced? The bread has found a market, and is being sold to international schools and homes nearby.
The bakery project is part of the work of the Chaoyang District Mental Health Service Center. Around 40 mental health professionals and caregivers work at the service center, which spans some 4,000 square meters and houses 202 boarded patients with a wide range of chronic psychiatric disorders and without families to rely on. The patients chosen to work in the bakery have already gone through treatment in the hospital and are assessed to be stable enough to handle the job.
According to the hospital’s chief, Yang Yun, people working in the bakery are the ones who go through a better recovery process and have the willingness to challenge themselves a bit more.
An academic paper in 2012 in the British medical journal, Lancet, estimated that China has only about 20,000 psychiatrists, and just 4,000 of those are “adequately trained and qualified”. Stigma and misunderstanding also persist, causing many patients not to get the treatment they need.
But the bakery can be seen as part of a big shift in the way mental illness is treated in China. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 100 million Chinese people suffer from “psychiatric handicaps,” with more than 16 million registered as “seriously” afflicted. And in May 2013, China’s first law to guard the medical privacy of people seeking treatment for mental illness came into force. The American Journal of Psychiatry hailed the new law as “a high-water mark for Chinese psychiatry, and potentially for global mental health.”
Wang Andi from New York University has also contributed to the story.