Smart Thinker: the Kiwi baker empowering conversations about mental health with cake

Smart Thinker: the Kiwi baker empowering conversations about mental health with cake
One Kiwi baker is empowering conversations around mental health one cake – and one smile – at a time.

Lauren Stewart says that as a child she lived for sweet things and has been an avid baker since age 10. That love of baking has come to the fore during the pandemic, leading her to pioneer the ‘Are You O’caKe?’ mental health conversation starter movement.

Indeed, the motto behind her Floss Cakery business is twofold: to empower people to open conversations around mental health because you matter, and making people smile, one cake at a time. “I think in some sweet way, I’m achieving both,” she says. Yet just like with baking, her own mental health journey started at a young age.

Stewart was 13 when her mum Joanne was diagnosed with bowel cancer. “I had to grow up quite a bit and fast, as my dad Grant and my older sister Melissa were busy taking care of Mum. My parents tried to explain things to me, but I was so scared of losing Mum that I didn’t really take it all in. So, I ended up not understanding a huge amount of what was going on,” she says.

“We’re also one of those classic Kiwi families that kind of laugh everything off, and although I was terrified, I adopted the same attitude; that Mum was simply going to be okay. As a result, I suppressed a lot of emotions and that created a fear of abandonment in me.”

Fortunately, a year later her mother recovered from cancer and the family household returned to its normal routine. Yet, the psychological impact this left on Stewart was not addressed.

“For a very long time I kept on having these negative thoughts and depressive feelings about how I was a terrible person,” she says. “I thought I was just being silly, so I pushed them down. In hindsight, and after years of therapy, I now recognise that they were very valid feelings.”

After finishing a Bachelor of International Hospitality Management at Auckland University of Technology in 2014, she accepted a one-year apprenticeship in New York working in the restaurant sector.

Sadly, a year after returning home, her mother got sick again. “In 2016, when I was 25, mum required a liver transplant and that’s when my mental health reached a crux,” she says. “I wasn’t coping well. I was listening to all the horrible thoughts in my brain, and I remember lying in my bed crying, while Mum was in hospital. I just couldn’t understand why she got sick again and for some reason I internalised that it was my fault. My dad heard me and came in, and all I was saying was ‘I hate myself, I hate myself’.”

This time her dad didn’t ‘joke it off’, which was a huge relief. Instead, he sat down with her, and over dinner they started talking about what was going on for her mentally. They chatted about stress and the different ways they handled it.

At the end, her father suggested she seek professional help. “A giant sigh of relief flooded my whole body, when I realised my dad understood that I was going through something that required a bit more help as opposed to just pushing those feelings down.”

Three months later, when her mum began to feel better, she took her to their family GP, who confirmed how it was a good idea she talks to a mental health expert.

Since then, Stewart has found a psychotherapist who has been able to get to the heart of the matter and she’s been seeing them regularly for the past five years. “It’s made a huge difference to my life,” she says.

She began her own cake business, Floss Cakery in 2017. Just as the pandemic hit and isolation and mental distress became a greater challenge nationwide, being the empath that she is, Stewart decided she had to do something to help. “I came up with the idea of cake baking to feel better as keeping your hands occupied takes the pressure off the mind,” she says.

In November 2020, she brought out her Floss cake kit, which she likes to refer to as “a box full of fun”. The kit provides all the dry ingredients and decorations required to make and eat a Floss cake.

The goal isn’t to make a perfect cake, but to enjoy the process either alone or with a friend. “I also thought back to that conversation I had with my dad and the questions he asked me, and when my mum suggested the name ‘Are You O’caKe?’, I thought it was genius.”

From there she combined the Floss cake kit with a conversation card and the concept of talking about mental health over making and eating cake was born. The card has five questions, including, “What’s something you have struggled with this week?” and “What’s something you love about the other person?” “The goal is to help spark people to have those mental-health check-ins with their friends, family, or anyone that’s willing to listen.”

From each box that is sold, $1 is donated to NZ mental health charities including Voices of Hope, which aims to break the stigma around mental illness and reduce suicide rates.

This year she also started her ‘Are You O’caKe’ podcast, where she chats to people about their mental health journeys, and her first ‘Are You O’caKe’ event, with 50 baking and mental-health enthusiasts decorating cupcakes and being guided through self-compassion practices.

“The greatest satisfaction after they’ve purchased a Flosskit is the photos and stories they share with me about their own mental health struggles. This has been great for my own recovery, as I can now see how much I’m not alone … and that’s just beautiful to know.”

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