x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How Buffi Jashanmal knitted herself happy

Rin Simpson talks to Buffi Jashanmal, who found that knitting helped her deal with depression.

Buffi Jashanmal says knitting is very therapeutic and helps her to take her mind off negative thoughts. Jason Kempin / Getty Images / AFP
Buffi Jashanmal says knitting is very therapeutic and helps her to take her mind off negative thoughts. Jason Kempin / Getty Images / AFP

Depression is the curse of the modern age, a mental health issue that affects 120 million people worldwide. In fact, the World Health Organisation says that by 2020, it will be second only to chronic heart disease as a burden on international health.

There are many traditional remedies, from medication to therapies such as NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). But experts also endorse the importance of lifestyle factors such as diet, sleep and exercise. And today there's a new, fun element to add to the mix - crafts.

Buffi Jashanmal was just 18 when she was diagnosed with depression. The Prozac her doctor prescribed did little to help and soon she developed an eating disorder, too. Swinging between 57kg and 41kg, her early 20s were unbearable. Until, that is, she discovered knitting.

"My grandmother taught me to knit when I was very young and I got back into it when I went to fashion school," says the 32-year-old, who has worked in London, New York and Dubai, and recently made a name for herself as a contestant on the latest season of the reality show Project Runway.

"Knitting is very therapeutic, I find it very relaxing. It's like meditating. You kind of zone out and yet your focus is on something. It's something that can take your mind off things."

Jashanmal is not the only one who credits her wool-based hobby with providing a way of tackling the symptoms of depression. Online knitting forums such as Ravelry.com are full of testimonies, and projects such as the UK's Stitchlinks are currently undertaking research they hope will provide hard science to back up the anecdotal evidence.

According to its supporters, knitting - and indeed crafts in general - are therapeutic in a number of key ways. First, the simple act of getting involved in something productive, something that you can see growing and improving as you work, generates a sense of usefulness. "With knitting you're accomplishing something, which is motivating," says Jashanmal. "It makes you challenge yourself in different ways."

Dr Jessica Lee, a clinical psychologist based at the Infinity clinic in Dubai, agrees. She explains that it's all too easy for those who suffer with depression to get into a downwards spiral, with low motivation and low activity producing feelings of hopelessness and guilt that further decrease motivation. Taking part in an entertaining pastime such as knitting can stop and even reverse this vicious cycle.

"When we increase our activity we feel more hopeful, our symptoms of depression lessen, we have greater energy and motivation and we can thus do more," she says. "Having a visible product from your work is a good reminder of what you have achieved and may serve to further motivate you."

The act of concentrating on a craft activity can, in itself, be a positive distraction from the negative emotions caused by depression, and can provide respite during which the body can heal.

"Living in the present moment rather than in the pain of the past or fear of the future is a good way to appreciate life and to feel as though you are 'living'," says Lee. "When you concentrate on something in this moment and give your full attention to it, you are engaged in the present moment. We often spend plenty of time planning and reminiscing, but forget to live in the right now."

Although there is no doubt still a place for traditional medicine and therapies, the anecdotal evidence from experts and from those suffering from depression is clear. Picking up a pair of knitting needles - or a crochet hook or tapestry needle - could be a vital part of the treatment mix.