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Mental health services: explained

Mental health services are complicated, and it can take time for all of us to find the right help and support.

If you’re experiencing mental health issues for the first time, you may find the system confusing. Even for people working in mental health it can be a challenge to understand.

The truth is that two people with the same diagnoses can easily end up having a completely different ‘journey’ through the system. The more you can find out about what help and support is available, and how it works, the easier it will be for you to ‘advocate’ for yourself.

How to get help

Image shows two cogs on white background labelled 'primary' and 'secondary'. An arrow from the 'primary' cog is labelled 'SPA' and 'GP' and points to a 'secondary' cog.

When you start accessing mental health support, you may hear one of the following three words:

  1. Primary: Primary services include things like your GP (doctor), and Sheffield Talking Therapies. They’re called ‘primary services’ because they’re usually the first place people go with any health issues. If you’re experiencing mental health issues, your GP may be the best person to speak to first, because they can ‘refer’ you to secondary services (you can also access secondary services directly through the Single Point of Access).
  2. Secondary: Secondary mental health services are specialised, and include specific teams like community mental health teams, and crisis resolution and home treatment teams. Because they’re specialised, this means they’re expensive to run and sadly there are often long waiting lists following referrals.
  3. Voluntary: Running alongside primary and secondary services are voluntary services: support provided in the community, usually by charities and other non-profits. You can often access these services without a referral, so they are a good option for when you are waiting on a referral to secondary services. A good way of finding out about these is speaking to us, at the Sheffield Mental Health Guide.

You may also hear the phrase ‘tertiary’ which is highly specialised treatment such as secure forensic mental health services, or specialist psychotherapy services. If you’re working or a student, there may also be support options available to you through your employer or educational institution. If you are able to pay for it, there is also support available through the private sector, for example independent counsellors.

The word ‘services’ is sometimes used to refer to secondary services, but is also used to refer to the voluntary sector. It’s worth asking people what they mean when they use the word!

What to expect

Your GP or the Single Point of Access will make a decision about what support they think you need. Your GP may diagnose you if they think you’re experiencing a common mental health problem like depression or anxiety, or they may refer you to a specialist (e.g. a psychiatrist) to diagnose you.


Depending on your diagnosis, you should be offered treatment. You may be prescribed medication, referred to Sheffield Talking Therapies, or referred to secondary mental health services (see above). If you are referred it’s quite likely you’ll be put on a waiting list.

Another thing your GP or the health professional you’re speaking to may recommend is lifestyle changes. Making small changes to how you eat, sleep, drink, communicate and live your life can make a massive difference to your day to day mental health and wellbeing.

Who you might meet

There are a lot of different health professionals you may meet along the way: counsellors, psychologists, mental health nurses, key workers, health visitors, psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, and psychological wellbeing practitioners (the list goes on).

What to do while you are waiting

There is often a lot of waiting involved when you are looking for support for your mental health, especially if you are hoping to get help from secondary services.

It’s worth looking at a range of things to help:

What to do if it’s not working out

If you are ‘in crisis’, contact the organisations on our urgent help page.

Getting the right help can sometimes be a challenge. Services are very stretched at the moment, especially since the pandemic. It may be difficult talking to your GP about your mental health issues, or it may be hard to make a decision about next steps.

Once you’re in the care of secondary services, you may find you need to work to get your needs heard. But there is help and support available to you if you are experiencing barriers, including advocates who can support you in getting the help you need.

Other challenges

Mental health issues are often made worse (and caused by) other problems in our lives. And of course, when we aren’t feeling good it’s much harder to manage with day to day challenges. It’s worth getting help if you’re experiencing money worries, housing issues, relationship challenges or work issues, make sure you try and get some help and support.

We’re here

We are here weekdays 9-5pm to talk through support options in Sheffield: 0114 273 7009,

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