Lisa, a Modern Languages student, contacted the Student Access to Mental Health Support (SAMHS) in January 2019 through the Dyslexic and Disabled Students Services (DDSS). At the time, she was just looking for some mental health support with academia in an effort to rediscover her passion for her degree and feel less depressed.
Once she got an appointment with SAMHS, Lisa felt the therapist kept asking questions about previous issues that had no relation to her current mental state. Lisa felt pressured: “I nearly burst into tears in the appointment by talking about my previous issues, to which she kept pressing and pressing.”
The psychologist’s next words stunned her. “You’re too far gone, we can’t help you.”
SAMHS is a service designed to give mental health support to students at the University. Appointments include 30 minute discussions between an expert and each individual. According to their website, the waiting time for an appointment varies between five days to 14 days after registering. Even so, Lisa waited for over a month before her first appointment with the therapist.
After the appointment, Lisa received an email with a series of numbers to mental health institutions, but with no direction or knowledge of how to access them. She did not contact them.
“I felt like, if they can’t help me, who can?” she said. “It actually made my mental health worse going to see them and I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only person who was turned away and told that they were unhelpable.
“It massively wrecked my confidence in SAMHS – it was really demotivating and I ended up struggling a lot that year.”
Unfamiliar at the time with any other mental health service providers such as Nightline or NHS 111, it felt like the support from the University was all she had. Feeling lost, she reached out to academics in her Modern Languages department for help. However, she admitted to not feeling comfortable sharing her experiences with them and, in the end, nothing was solved – her depression started getting worse.
After two years of not getting the help needed, and now on her year abroad, Lisa found herself once again in a difficult position: stuck in a foreign country during the outbreak of a worldwide pandemic. She was forced to move back in April 2020 – an abrupt change that she admitted caused her to suffer bad depression, anxiety, and mental breakdowns.
In June, she had a “massive” breakdown over fears of changes in her assessments due to Covid-19; those fears were later confirmed as the expectations of structure and communication she desperately valued were not fully met by her department and her submissions completely changed.
She found herself contacting the Student Wellbeing Services in tears. “I said, I don’t know what’s going on, I feel really bad. And he talked me through some wellbeing exercises.”
The Student Wellbeing Service is preventative support offered by the University to help manage student’s wellbeing when dealing with mild difficulties and challenges at university. It does not include counseling, mental health support, therapy or treatment; to get those, their website recommends SAMHS.
Lisa was finally given some assistance in the form of six weeks of free therapy and a referral to SAMHS. “I actually found the Wellbeing Services were pretty instant. I definitely recommend the faculty Wellbeing Services because I managed to get an appointment that day with someone in my faculty.”
That was how she learned she might have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Her next step was to go again to SAMHS – the request for an appointment was placed in early October and finally came to fruition mid-November.
“I went in there and said: ‘Look, my therapist says I probably have OCD, what can you do about it?’ And they knew what to do from there. But it would have been a different story if I went in there and said I’m feeling depressed and I don’t know what to do.There’s no doubt that SAMHS are quite notorious for not seeing students quickly and I think that will put students off because it takes a lot of courage to recognise that you need help.
“But there was always the worry that I couldn’t open up to SAMHS fully, especially since the last appointment I’ve been [to]” she added, “I’m very fortunate I now have quite good communication with them, but that’s because I’ve been trying for a couple of years.”
This delay in support can be detrimental for anyone in a delicate mental state. Even more so during lockdown, when socialising with other households is banned and social distancing measures are in place. Nightline, the student listening service, has recorded a 92% increase in their number of Instant Messenger texts since last year, with 57% of them being related to Covid-19. However, by contrast, SAMHS experienced a surprising decrease in students accessing their services, down 46.6% during the first lockdown compared to the previous year.
Dale Kitchen, the University Counselling Service Manager at SAMHS said: “At the beginning of the pandemic we made a major shift from offering exclusively face to face appointments to offering appointments remotely via telephone and video call. This remote service was put in place within a couple of days but refined and developed over the following months.
“We always aim to offer an appointment within 15 working days, although we have in the past exceeded this at our busiest times.”
For other students, accessing the University’s mental health services can be a confusing system with the registrations, initial calls, and then waiting times for appointments.
Yaroslav Matveev, 19, a Journalism student, contacted SAMHS for an emergency appointment at the end of February this year after suffering from depression and self-harm.
By the time SAMHS scheduled an appointment for him at the end of March, the pandemic had struck the UK – counseling services went online and all previous appointments were cancelled. “It was really tough because I needed help,” he said. “At that exact moment, it was an emergency.”
SAMHS, however, is not a service for mental health crises and emergencies. They state this on their website and instead direct students to alternative services that can help in those instances.
The pandemic put the mental health services in a tough position; SAMHS had no choice but to cancel every single appointment and offer phone or email alternatives. This decision, combined with an already long waiting time, left students astray during turbulent times.
Yaroslav had to register with them again. The University had also created a VPN service to make registering safe for students but, for Yaroslav, this made student mental health services even more inaccessible. Finding the adjustment to online services unsettling and difficult, he decided to have online, private consultations back in his home country, Russia, which helped him cope during the lockdown months.
But when he started his second year in September, the uncertainty surrounding his degree was overwhelming, and the anxiety that came with it pushed him into another period of depression. This time he asked for help from his Journalism department.
The department referred him to SAMHS where he managed to get an early appointment because of a student cancellation, only to be sent to a GP to receive medication. “What I really needed the most during that time was a simple chat to discuss why I am feeling this way,” he said. “Nobody really tried to talk to me or support me in any way.
“I am just very confused and this shouldn’t be happening, especially when we’re talking about mental health. It’s so cool to have the NHS 111, SAMHS and GPs for students, but I think it can be really good if the University could make a mental health section designed specifically for international students’ needs. It can take pressure off the NHS or from GPs and the entire process can be less confusing for those who have just moved here.”
Another international student, Bárbara Pinho, 23, a science writer and former MA student, had to fly back to her home country, Portugal, at the beginning of the pandemic and quarantine for two weeks in a room.
“It was really difficult to just go back to my parents place, and we kind of live in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “I’m looking at the window and I see sheep. So it’s like, really, really isolated. I feel very limited here.” Being at home with her parents after living independently for so long, and while facing the same uncertainty as Yaroslav with her degree, soon brought her to the point of experiencing anxiety attacks every day.
She would work and then, out of the blue, have tough crying attacks. “I would just go to the sofa and let myself cry.”
She contacted SAMHS in April and did not mind the two-week waiting time. “The therapist was amazing and we had an entire session and talked about all the things that were going on, and why I feel so overwhelmed and bad with all of the things that were happening to me. And then it felt like we were going somewhere”.
However, after the initial discussion, Bárbara did not hear back for weeks, until she decided to email them herself. SAMHS specified that students from the University of Sheffield who do not live in the UK cannot access the counselling service offered by the University as it is against their guidelines.
But Bárbara had to move back to her home country out of circumstances, not out of choice. “The representative from SAMHS was completely apologetic, so it was really nice. And he said he knew I could benefit from therapy with them, but it was just like a bureaucracy kind of thing.
“I’m seeing a private therapist here, which is, again, a privilege because it’s expensive. I started in August or September, which is quite a delay. Mental health is still a stigma in Portugal though.”
Holly Ellis, the Welfare Officer at Sheffield Students’ Union said: “Everybody who had an appointment booked [with SAMHS] should have been offered an alternative. They should have been offered to have a phone call or a video call.
“We’ve got lots of mental health support services at our university. The welfare of our students is our priority, especially during this pandemic. We’ve got SAMHS, and we’re offering a fast track service to students who are self isolating, so they should be seen within two days after going through that service.
“The Wellbeing Faculty service was launched in June with the aim of helping to reduce those long waiting times, and so students can book an appointment with the wellbeing service themselves; they can self-refer, which makes things a lot easier.”
During the second lockdown, the waiting times for appointments did not change even though there was also a decrease in the number of people accessing the mental health services at the University. However, Ellis explains that the long waiting times now are connected to the new system they provided students with.
“It’s because of the fast track system that we’ve had for the self isolating students,” she said. “We’re prioritising the self-isolating students and making sure that they can have a call within two days. With the number of self-isolating students coming down now, we’re confident that we’ll be able to reduce the waiting times for all students accessing SAMHS.
“We really want our students to know that we are here for you, and we will do all that we can to support you. You’re not alone.”
Dale Kitchen, the University Counselling Service Manager at SAMHS, added: “Discussions with IAPT Sheffield resulted in an offer of a four week online course called “It’s Okay Not To Be Okay- Coping With Covid” to improve well-being for students during the Covid-19 pandemic and this additional resource, specifically for students, is due to start on the 17 November.