A cup of coffee and a hope for the future

Wu Ruofan
A mental health center in Shanghai's Yangpu District has opened a café that helps the mentally ill develop skills for reentry into society.
Wu Ruofan
Shot by Ma Xuefeng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Subtitles by Yang Yang and Andy Boreham.

Finding a job can be depressing for many people, but more so for those who already suffer from depression or other mental illnesses.

A café called Healing Coffee recently opened at the Yangpu District Mental Health Center in Shanghai to help give such people practical training to enhance their employment opportunities.

A cup of coffee and a hope for the future
Yan Jingyang / SHINE

A trainee at Healing Coffee serves a client.

From cashier to waitress to coffee maker, the workers there all struggle with some form of mental problems. Staff at the center, which was created in tandem with the district’s disabled people’s federation, refer to them as trainees or apprentices, not patients.

A woman surnamed Cheng was among the first group of trainees. With no relative work experience, she now works at the café six hours a day, Monday through Friday, after just one month’s training.

“The experience I am getting here can help me transfer to a more demanding job in the future,” Cheng said. “It’s better than any recovery program at home, where a person tends to get more family tolerance and becomes lazy.”

Cheng, who has suffered long-term depression, was a regular patient at the mental health center since 2017. After her condition stabilized, she began to undertake rehabilitation training in the community, including some simple handicraft work.

“Doctors helped me through difficult times in the past few years,” she said. “Just as they adjusted my medication to find the right dose, the instructor at the café has adjusted the training to help me improve without pushiness.”

The café, which sells an average 70 cups of coffee a day, officially opened about three weeks ago in what was once a passageway connecting the inpatient and outpatient departments. Its interior is decorated in green and burlywood, and artwork and handicrafts done by patients adorn the walls.

A cup of coffee and a hope for the future
Wu Ruofan / SHINE

The café has been transformed from a passageway connecting the inpatient and outpatient departments.

“Books in the café are provided by a previous patient, who has recovered quite well,” said Chen Yiqun, chief of rehabilitation department of the center. “He offered to supply books regularly, with the help of a subdistrict library.”

The chances for discharged patients with mental disorders to get a job are less than 10 percent. The majority of them have a certain degree of functional decline, which makes it hard for them to feel accepted when they return to society.

“There are very few who can easily return to some sort of work,” said Chen. “Some patients move stiffly and have problems with yawning due to long-term illness. The side effects of drugs can also be a problem in finding employment.”

Many patients are hard-pressed to gain entry to community rehabilitation centers, where staff think it’s too dangerous for them to operate things like sharp tools.

According to Chen, there are many levels of rehabilitation services in districts and subdistricts that provide employment training for vulnerable groups, like the mentally retarded and former alcoholics. People yearning to reenter society often don’t know where to start the process.

“Currently, programs for the recovery of patients with mental illnesses are still scarce,” she said. “Most of them have limited social functions and poor occupational and communication skills. The café is our first project open to the public, and we hope it will be expanded to help a larger group.”

A cup of coffee and a hope for the future
Yan Jingyang / SHINE

A trainee keeps accounts of the café at the end of the day.

According to the center’s concept, café apprentices should be eased into shouldering more responsibilities.

The café’s accounts are handled by a trainee identified only as Jie, who does have some past experience in that field. 

“I knew little about the catering industry before coming here, but now I know the whole operation process, including coffee-making,” he said. “Maybe I’ll open a bubble teashop someday.”

A nurse surnamed Han said, “We hope the experience here can give these people more self-confidence and hope for the future.” 

A trainee identified as Ji, who formerly worked in a food factory, is now the main barista at the café, after only three days of training. 

“I was nervous when I started, but the learning process has adjusted my mood,” he said. “When you run into practical problems, such as the proportion of ingredients to use, you get fully absorbed in handling them.”

Nurse Han said Ji doesn’t talk much, but she can see from the look of determination in his eyes that he wants to become “a better version of himself.”

Ji said he is pacing his progress without putting undue pressure on himself.

“For now, I just want to enjoy the learning process,” he said. 

A cup of coffee and a hope for the future
Yan Jingyang / SHINE

One of the trainees identified as Ji is now the main barista at the café. 

Chen admits the capacity of the coffee shop is limited. There are plans to add another four trainees to work shifts, and other platforms for opportunities are being explored. 

“Some of the products made in our bakeries, such as egg tarts, are already supplying café,” she said. “We are thinking of helping trainees get certified so that they can apply for more jobs.”

The training center also offers patients volunteer work such as outpatient medical guidance and supermarket services. In the future, that may expand to mobile dining trucks and car washes.

“I think more platforms must be provided,” Chen said. “Trainees need the chance to prove themselves skill-worthy, and we hope society will be magnanimous in giving them chances to work.” 

A cup of coffee and a hope for the future
Wu Ruofan / SHINE

The passageway of the café is adorned with artworks and handcrafts done by patients at the mental health center.

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