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‘This is my little happy place’: Shabana Begum reflects on how sewing helped her talk about mental health

A year and a half ago, Shabana Begum’s anxiety was so bad she couldn’t leave the house. Now she is making it her mission to get people to talk about mental health. 

Just over a year ago, Shabana Begum, 39, was fighting anxiety and depression. She had recently gone through a divorce and had an operation, which she says triggered her depression and anxiety. The stigma around mental health in her community meant that she felt unable to reach out for help.

People didn’t talk about their mental health when she was growing up in Stepney. Begum says: ‘[The attitude was] why should it affect you? Questions would be thrown at you. You’re able to eat, you’re able to walk. But what they don’t realise, if you’re not mentally fit then physically you won’t be.’

‘I felt that I was drowning in depression. I had no one to talk to,’ Begum says. She didn’t feel able to talk to family and friends about her mental health, so she reached out to her GP. The GP was concerned and the two of them started chatting weekly.

Her GP asked her what got her out of bed in the morning. She mentioned that her dream had always been to enter the world of fashion. Begum’s GP had heard about the Working Well Trust and their Sew and Support programme and referred her.

The Working Well Trust has helped people struggling with mental health challenges return to work for over 30 years. Sew and Support is a programme they run at the Shadwell Centre, which is opposite the King Edward Memorial Park. The programme aims to teach people new skills in a supportive environment.

It was a difficult start. Her mind would go blank and she would forget to go. She tells me that she used to only leave the house to drop off and pick up her son from school. 

‘One day, I said you know what, I’m going give it a try’. Too nervous to get the bus, she booked a cab. ‘My body was shaking, and when I got to the place, I was just standing outside waiting for someone to get me.’ 

Begum thought that Sew and Support would be like school. What she found couldn’t have been more different. ‘I really liked the atmosphere. I thought, this feels like home’, she says with a smile. 

Sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays became the highlight of Begum’s week. Gradually her confidence grew. She started using public transport. ‘Just listening to my music, minding my own business’ on the train ‘felt good’. 

I asked her what it was about Sew and Support that had such an impact on her. ‘It’s the way everyone was,’ she explains, ‘they’re really understanding. They weren’t putting pressure on me.’ 

Begum recalls how when she didn’t come in for a session a volunteer called her. Instead of asking ‘Why aren’t you here’, they asked, ‘Are you ok?’

I’m not surprised that Begum was able to build a support network at Sew and Support. Sessions take place in a light-filled room tucked away in the corner of the building. Here Angela Braithwaite, who runs the programme, has created a warm and welcoming environment.

Sew and Support has helped her open up to her family about her mental health. ‘My sister understands me even more now, that’s the most important thing to me. She knows I’m getting the right support because I always talk about it.’

Begum also finds the sewing therapeutic. She likes the control she has over a project from start to finish. At the end she can say ‘I was able to do it because I didn’t give up’, and that feels good. 

Begum’s proudest moment came after four months on the programme. She overheard a member of staff talking about how they couldn’t find a prom dress for their daughter. She jumped in and said ‘I don’t mind taking that.’ Two weeks later, she had designed and made a bespoke prom dress. 

Now Begum is a volunteer at Sew and Support. She sees a lot of her old self in the new people who join. ‘One of the clients told me that it’s really difficult for her to get out of the house. I listened to them first and then shared my story.’ She told them: ‘You know what, I was in the same position as you.’

She wants people to know that talking about mental health is ‘not an embarrassing thing. Don’t be embarrassed about talking about what you’re going through. If you don’t speak up, you’re going end up in a far worse situation.’ 

Residents of Tower Hamlets who are over 18 and are facing mental health challenges can either self-refer to Sew and Support, or be referred by their GP or NHS Mental Health Services. Between 2020 and 2021, the Working Well Trust helped 689 people facing mental health challenges get back into work. They offer a wide range of services beyond Sew and Support.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy our article about the Whitechapel Mission.

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