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Cake and Medication: Self-care is more than just spending money on yourself

By Helena Ladomatos

Glance at the Instagram feed of My Little Panda Kitchen and it looks like any other aesthetically pleasing cake feed.  But take a closer look and you’ll find a transparent and inclusive discussion about mental health and how to manage it.

Three years ago, Annabelle McMillan was going through a depressive episode.  She was stuck in a full-time job in retail while trying to build a life as an artist.

Maker Kitchen aims to support small businesses and help them find success.

“I was totally, totally miserable.  Absolutely hated it,” she said.

After starting a food blog, she started making vegan Indonesian lunch boxes and delivering them by bicycle around Sydney.

Now, Annabelle’s cooking adventures have grown into two businesses.  She’s the baker behind My Little Panda Kitchen, making bespoke vegan cakes, and she manages Maker Kitchen, a shared commercial space that does catering, educational workshops and is a café on the weekends.

More importantly, she also manages her mental health.

“My particular issues are around BPD, dissociative disorders and complex trauma, and all the other stuff that comes along with that, like anxiety and depression.”

If you are one of her over 18,000 followers on Instagram, it’s likely you already know this. Annabelle’s incredibly open about her mental health and is not afraid to chat about it in the comments.

“Mental health, both struggles and wellness, is a huge part of who I am, and it felt disingenuous to just be a pretty cake Instagram and a small business that is really just me, and not actually talk about the real things happening for me,” she says.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on social media for businesses, and people, to be beautiful.”

In an era where people make careers from branding themselves on Instagram, how does discussing mental health so openly affect a business?

“…it is really difficult to post about the nitty gritty stuff, because maybe an advertiser or business won’t want to engage with that,” Annabelle says.  “You can miss out on valuable opportunities because your stuff isn’t beautiful and perfect all the time.”

Yet there are no missed opportunities for Annabelle.  If anything, it has strengthened the relationship she has with her customers and helped to grow the businesses.

“I really found that if I was more honest, then people were more receptive. If I have this platform and for some reason nearly 20 000 people want to look at my fucking cakes, then they can also listen to me talk about how to access a GP and get your mental health plan so you can get to a therapist,” she says.

Pride flags and The Welcome Here Project sticker brighten up the front window of Maker Kitchen.

This attitude to mental health is reflected in the Maker Kitchen, as well. Based in Petersham, Maker Kitchen is spattered with rainbow stickers, as well as pride flags, body positive artwork by Frances Cannon and acknowledgements of Indigenous Land. Creating a space where people feel welcome and safe to talk about their mental health has always been important.

“Our induction folder for new members… within that we touch on that we’re an ACON registered safe space, LGBT + run space. We have phone numbers for Lifeline, Black Dog institute,” she says.

ACON, a program funded by the NSW Government, focuses on HIV preventions and support, and LGBTI health.  The Welcome Here Project, formerly known as the Safe Place Project, encourage businesses to display their stickers to show they are a safe space for LGBTI people.

“It’s about putting our values quite strongly at the forefront from the get go.”

Australian workplaces lose approximately $10.9 billion per year due to untreated mental health conditions, according to a Beyond Blue report. So, creating a mentally healthy workplace where people feel open to discuss their struggles is incredibly valuable to a business.

An ongoing report by Everymind says that, despite small business making up almost 98 per cent of NSW businesses, the majority of workplace mental health programs do not meet the needs of small businesses.  Factors such as working long hours, the blurring of home and work boundaries and financial stress can have a large impact on the wellbeing of small business owners.

Annabelle is currently training someone to help out, but for now she is the force behind the bespoke cake creations of My Little Panda Kitchen.

This is a reality Annabelle experiences first hand, as the sole worker behind My Little Panda Kitchen.

“Last week I had one of my busiest weeks ever and I’m working 60 plus hours this week. I’m at home just to sleep and eat and then I get up and come back [to the kitchen]. Nothing else is in my life except for these things,” she says.

It is not unusual for small business owners to neglect their wellbeing when work gets busy.   When you already have a mental illness to manage, taking care of yourself is even more important.

“A super frustrating thing is the idea of self-care being just spending money, which is stupid,” Annabelle stresses.

“No. Self-care is setting boundaries, which is good for your overall health – mental health, physical health.   Make sure that you’re looked after… so doing life admin even if its fucking boring like going to the doctor … is so, so, so important but it just gets lost or forgotten about and people don’t talk about it.

“I can’t keep being the business you want me to be unless I’m doing the things I need to look after myself… And if I tell you about it then you know how to manage your expectations around what I am able to provide.

“I think the biggest thing has been being able to and feeling safe to be vulnerable and ask for help if I need help… I think one benefit of building community is that then you can lean on that community when you need to.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, you can visit your local GP or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Helena Ladomatos