By JEANNE WHALEN
Many cooks know what a sanctuary the kitchen can be.
Now, some health-care clinics and counselors are using cooking or baking as therapy tools for people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental-health problems.
The courses are often partly aimed at teaching healthy cooking and eating skills to people living tough, chaotic lives. Counselors say the classes also soothe stress, build self-esteem and curb negative thinking by focusing the mind on following a recipe. Often the courses are part of a larger treatment plan that can also including talk therapy or medication.
A Bethlehem, Conn., treatment center for teens uses cooking lessons to help treat mental illness and addiction. The head chef at the clinic, Newport Academy, runs the courses, teaching teens how to make healthier versions of their favorite foods, such as burgers or macaroni and cheese. The chef, Patricia D’Alessio, demonstrates techniques for tasks like chopping vegetables or making meat patties and has the teens follow along with their own ingredients.
The two-hour classes “got them to focus on something other than stressful emotions, or what was going on in their day,” Ms. D’Alessio says. “It redirects their thought process to focus them on the process of cooking.”
Psychologists say cooking and baking are pursuits that fit a type of therapy known as behavioral activation. The goal is to alleviate depression by boosting positive activity, increasing goal-oriented behavior and curbing procrastination and passivity.
“If the activity is defined as personally rewarding or giving a sense of accomplishment or pleasure, or even seeing the pleasure of that pumpkin bread with chocolate chips making someone else happy, then it could improve a sense of well-being,” says Jacqueline Gollan,associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Clinical studies on cooking’s therapeutic effects are hard to come by. But occupational therapists say cooking classes are particularly widely used in their profession, which seeks to help people with mental or physical disorders maintain their daily living and working skills.
In one study published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2004, researchers in the U.K. found that baking classes boosted confidence, increased concentration and provided a sense of achievement for 12 patients being treated in inpatient mental-health clinics. The patients took an average of two baking classes and were then interviewed to assess their reaction.
Annie Gendaszek, a counselor and program coordinator at Newport Academy, says the cooking courses are part of the clinic’s aim of getting teens “involved by doing.” Residents typically engage in several hours of talk therapy each day during their 45-day stays. That alone can stressful, Ms. Gendaszek says. Cooking is a fun activity where the teens “may not think they’re actually doing therapy,” she says.
Matthew Petrillo, a 17-year-old who took the classes as part of his depression treatment at the clinic this fall, deemed them “awesome.”
“Talking therapy was really going in-depth with why we are here,” he said. Being in the kitchen “wasn’t all focused on why we’re here, but on getting better and boosting confidence and self-esteem and skills.”
Some cookbooks in recent years have addressed the therapeutic pull of the kitchen. John Whaite, a baker who in 2012 won “The Great British Bake Off,” a popular U.K. television show, published a cookbook that talks about his history of depression, and how he uses baking to comfort himself. In 2012, Irish novelist Marian Keyes published “Saved by Cake,” which describes how baking helped her cope with a bad bout of depression.
Sam Smith, a 42-year-old primary-school teacher in northern England, says she devoured Ms. Keyes’s book after spotting it at a grocery store. She, too, had turned to baking after developing postpartum depression, and found it a lifesaver. She threw herself into making decorated cookies, churning out confections in the shape of butterflies, Christmas ornaments and the cartoon character Thomas the Tank Engine. She snapped up cookie cutters at baking shops and on eBay. “I ended up with a whole shelf full,” she says.
One problem: All that baking made her gain 25 pounds. There were only so many school bake sales or children’s birthday parties she could send her creations to. “It boosted my confidence. And I felt it relaxed me, as well,” she says. But for the sake of her waistline, she says she is trying to cut back a bit.
Therapists say anyone developing a regular cooking habit is wise to stick to healthy recipes, particularly since depression and other mood disorders can cause weight gain. Catana Brown, an occupational therapist in Glendale, Ariz., says she and others in the profession emphasize healthy recipes and portion control when using cooking as a therapy tool.
“It’s a huge issue, not only because of obesity, but because a lot of [depression] medications that people take tend to be associated with weight gain,” she says. She ran a weekly cafe for many years in Kansas City, Kan., that invited people with mental illness to cook and serve food to others in the community. She had them make healthy versions of foods like gumbo and always included a vegetable or salad dish. “A lot of times when people cook, they eat less high-calorie stuff, because they’re eating less fast food,” she says.
If possible, sharing the cooking and eating process with others can be extra helpful, therapists say. Some people with mental illness feel socially isolated, so having an excuse to be in the kitchen or around a table with others can boost social skills and confidence, says Helen Tafoya, clinical manager of a psychosocial rehabilitation program at the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center in Albuquerque. The outpatient program runs cooking classes for local people with schizophrenia, depression and other illnesses.
Ms. Tafoya, a clinical counselor, says preparing and sharing food with others is therapeutic because it’s central to who we are as human beings. “The ability to eat and share food is very, very primal,” she says. “Eating or breaking bread with someone has healing capacities beyond anything that we can really quantify.”