Meet the charities filling a gap in Sheffield’s mental health services

Sheffield is renowned for its green city status, surrounded by rolling hills and romantic vistas. But for many who live here, life is far from peaceful; according to the Office for National Statistics, almost a quarter (23%) of people in Sheffield report being very anxious.

We are not alone in this. In 2021/22, 1.81 million people across the UK were referred to an NHS Talking Therapies service through Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT).

Whether you have work-related stress, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the recommended course of treatment is usually a small number of cognitive behavioral therapy sessions (CBT). There’s no doubt this service saves lives, but statistics show it doesn’t work for everyone.

In Sheffield, 63% of people who received treatment through IAPT last year saw a marked improvement in their mental health after the sessions ended, and 50% were described as recovered. As Dan Hayes notes in his recent Tribune article, patients who are thought to have more complex needs are often referred elsewhere for treatment. They are then forced into long waiting lists for therapy or, if they are not deemed to be in immediate danger, discharged without warning.

As someone with first-hand experience of both scenarios, I can attest to how thoroughly isolating this process is. Those of us who aren’t in crisis but suffer from debilitating conditions like social anxiety disorder, PTSD, or OCD are often told that we are simultaneously too sick and not sick enough for immediate care. As a result, many are left to muddle through in a state of excruciating uncertainty.

But we don’t have to go through all of this alone. Right now, there are dozens of local charities working around the clock to bridge the gap between overburdened and under-resourced clinical services and people who are struggling with mental illness in our city. One of the most impressive of these organizations can be found in Grimesthorpe, down an unassuming dirt road opposite the Torbay Road junction.

Hidden there, behind a heavy iron gate gaily adorned with a cowbell, are a series of kitchen gardens, a small group of which belong to the therapeutic horticulture charity SAGE.

SAGE provides arts and cultural programs for those whose lives have been affected by mental illness. Their Greenfingers horticulture program, craft events, and singing groups are open to people from all walks of life, as long as they’re willing to get involved.

Upon arriving at their lot, I feel my tense shoulders relax as I am greeted by two things: the smell of a home-cooked meal bubbling on the stove and the smiling faces of SAGE Project and Support Workers Helen Walsh and Andrea Milward. As is the case with many charities like theirs, neither are mental health professionals.

I’m a podiatrist, actually! Helen later tells me.

We are more of a light charity, although we have mental health first aid training. In general, people here are healing not aimed at major healing as such. Its maintenance.

As I sit down to lunch with the group, I see firsthand the healing power of Greenfingers. It is an atmosphere of pure serenity. Birds are singing in the distance and some people are chatting around the table, while others are sharing a peaceful silence. Everyone eats a wholesome meal, satisfied that it was grown, cooked, and served as a group effort.

After lunch, I ask Helen to tell me more about the impact SAGE has on those who turn to them for help.

We have many people struggling to get out due to complications from the lockdown and isolation it has brought, she says.

Because a lot of people have been affected by it, it means we have a lot of diversity in our groups, a real mix of people. Some people will come week after week and never miss a session, and there are others who know they’ve been here, and even if they’re not well enough to come here, they take comfort in knowing they can come back again.

This is a safe space for them. Very often, it’s not gardening that they want their routine, the company, the chance to share a meal with people who understand.

Of course, SAGE isn’t the only charity offering a sense of community to the isolated and displaced. Located steps away from the Greenfingers allotment, Kaleido Arts for Wellbeing helps those who suffer from war, violence, discrimination, abuse and loss. The charity is home to three groups with a rather distinct theme: drumming, creating and writing for wellbeing.

Kaleido playing drums for wellbeing

Kaleido Art for Wellness

It has a bit of a social justice element to it, because in many cases the groups they were reaching may be being left behind by many other welfare programs, director Katherine Blessan tells me.

When refugees come to this country, often the thing they focus on is a place of safety, having something to eat, basic physical needs, but there are also so many deep emotional and psychological needs. I think that’s what it was all about: satisfying those who want community.

Katherine says the creation of art, music and writing is often “inadvertently” therapeutic for those who have experienced pain and trauma.

I say inadvertently because people are arriving and their primary purpose is not therapy or unloading; their main aim is to do something creative. Having the space and the freedom to do that actually has that side effect of bringing about healing, naturally.

It’s hard to deny that both of these charities are doing vital work, as are many others in the city. In a more just world they would exist alongside a comprehensive supply of clinical mental health – a service that anyone can readily access, whether they are in a state of crisis, learning to live with a long-term health condition or simply drown under the weight of everyday life. For now, we have the kindness and community offered by Helen Walsh, Katherine Blessan and many other people and organizations to help us.

As I concluded my interview with Helen, she offered an insight that filled me with an immeasurable amount of hope:

Sometimes, it’s a real bastard that comes out. The seedlings are killed and it doesn’t grow much, but that can’t be the end. We don’t aim for perfection here. We weren’t here all the time, so we can’t do it anyway. But we want to echo that fundamental lesson for humans: doing the best you can every day is more than enough.

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