Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

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

As services across Sheffield struggle to serve those with complex needs, Emily Ingram speaks to just two of the unique non-profits that are stepping up to help people cope.

Water the people meet charities kaleido sage
Bryony Finnigan for Now Then.

Sheffield is renowned for its status as a green city, surrounded by rolling hills and romantic vistas. But for many who live here, life is far from tranquil; according to the Office for National Statistics, nearly a quarter (23%) of people in Sheffield describe themselves as feeling ‘highly anxious’.

We’re 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 suffer from work-related stress, generalised 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 behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions. There is no doubt that this service saves lives, but the statistics show that it doesn’t work for everyone.

In Sheffield, 63% of people who received treatment through IAPT last year noticed a marked improvement in their mental health after their sessions were over and 50% were described as ‘recovered’. As Dan Hayes notes in his recent piece for the Tribune, patients who are deemed to have more complex needs are often referred elsewhere for treatment. They are subsequently forced onto lengthy waiting lists for therapy or, if they're not deemed to be in any immediate danger, discharged without warning.

As someone with first-hand experience of both scenarios, I can attest to how completely isolating this process is. Those of us who are not in ‘crisis’ – yet suffer from debilitating conditions like social anxiety, PTSD or OCD – are often told that we are simultaneously too ill and not ill enough for immediate care. As a result, many are left to muddle along in a state of agonising uncertainty.

But we don’t need to go through this alone. Right now, there are dozens of local charities that are working around the clock to bridge the gap between overstretched and underresourced clinical services and people who are struggling with mental illness in our city. One of the most impressive of these organisations is situated in Grimesthorpe, down an unassuming dirt track opposite Torbay Road junction.

Hidden there, behind a heavy iron gate cheerfully adorned with a cowbell, is a series of allotments, a small cluster of which belong to the therapeutic horticulture charity SAGE.

SAGE provides “arts and culture programmes for those whose lives have been affected by mental illness”. Their Greenfingers allotment gardening programme, craft events and singing groups are open to people from all walks of life – as long as they’re willing to get stuck in.

On arrival at their allotment, I feel my tense shoulders relax as I am greeted by two things: the smell of a home-cooked meal bubbling away 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 of them are dyed-in-the-wool mental health professionals.

“I’m a chiropodist, actually!” Helen later tells me.

“We’re more of a light-touch charity, although we do have mental health first aid training. Generally, people here are healing… We’re not aiming for some major recovery as such. It’s maintenance.”

As I sit down to lunch with the group, I see the healing power of Greenfingers for myself. It's an atmosphere of pure serenity. Birds are singing in the distance and some people chat around the table, whilst others share a peaceful silence. Everyone tucks into a healthy meal, satisfied that it had been 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 come to them for help.

“We have a lot of people who struggle to get out due to the complications stemming from lockdown and the isolation that brought,“ she says.

“As a lot of people were affected by that, it means we have a really great diversity in our groups, a real mix of people. Some people will come week on week and they’ll never miss a session, and there are others who know that we’re here, and even if they’re not well enough to get themselves here, they find comfort from knowing they can come back again.

“This is a safe space for them. Very often, it’s not gardening they want – it’s routine, companionship, 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. Based just a stone's throw from the Greenfingers allotment, Kaleido Arts for Wellbeing helps those suffering due to war, violence, discrimination, abuse and loss. The charity hosts three groups with a rather distinct theme: drumming, crafting and writing for wellbeing.

Kaleido drumming for wellbeing
Kaleido Arts for Wellbeing

“It’s got a bit of a social justice element, because in a lot of cases the groups that we’re reaching might be left behind by a lot of other wellbeing programmes,” Director Katherine Blessan tells me.

“When refugees arrive in this country, oftentimes the thing that they’re focusing on is a place of security, having something to eat – basic physical needs – but there are so many deep-seated emotional and psychological needs as well. I think that’s what we’re about: fulfilling those with a desire for a community.”

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

“I say inadvertently because people are coming in and their main purpose is not therapy, or to offload; their main purpose is to do something creative. By being given the space and the freedom to do that, it actually has that side effect of bringing the healing, in a natural way.”

It is difficult 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 clinical mental health provision: one that is readily available for anyone to access, whether they are in a state of crisis, learning to live with a long-term health condition or simply drowning 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 organisations to tide us over.

As I drew my interview with Helen to a close, she offered an insight that filled me with an immeasurable amount of hope:

Sometimes, it’s an absolute bugger that comes out of it. The seedlings are shot and nothing much grows – but that can’t be the end of it. We’re not aiming for perfection here. We’re not here all the time so we can’t do that anyway. But we want to echo that core lesson for humans: doing the best that you can each day is more than enough.

Filed under: 

More Equality & Social Justice

More Equality & Social Justice