Mental health & coaching:
best friends or sworn enemies?

If I had a quid (that’s £1 for our overseas friends) for every time someone asked me whether coaching and mental health can co-exist or whether they should coach someone who has a mental health condition… Well I’d probably have about £20 but still, that’ll buy me a steak and I’d love a steak right now!

Anyway…What I’m getting at is joining coaching & mental health together is becoming an increasingly contentious topic and there seem to be 3 different stances on it.

  • Absolutely not, it’s dangerous!
  • Uhh…. I dunno, maybe?
  • Yes absolutely!

Now if you’re reading this article then you probably know that I’m a mental health consultant and that’s where my major passion and expertise lies, but what you might not know is I’m also a coach in my spare time and work largely with folk starting in the world of entrepreneurship that also have some kind of history with mental health.

So where do I stand on the topic? Well, it depends on 3 issues…

The first thing to recognise is that we all have mental health, and it’s on a sliding scale, anywhere between ‘Amazing!’ and ‘Terrible!’. Very few people are at either extreme and what’s going on in life, how we respond to what’s going on and what we think about it will dictate where we are on that scale.

So, when we’re talking about mental health I’m not necessarily talking about things like depression, anxiety, PTSD, or bipolar disorder. Those are all mental health conditions but mental health as a topic is so much broader than that

Coaching is brilliant for helping us to understand what’s going on, see things that we might have otherwise missed, look at the options and then take action. This might be tackling a tricky family situation, making a decision in our career, or committing to improving our fitness levels. These are all things that are likely to move us further up on that sliding scale, improving our mental health.

So, you could argue that any coaching is a big benefit to our mental health because whatever the outcome, it’s going to have some kind of (hopefully positive) impact on our mental health.

That brings us to the second issue, what actually is a mental health coach? Is it even a thing?

Well, yes, it is entirely possible to be a mental health coach, unfortunately, what constitutes mental health coaching is wide open to interpretation and strictly, anyone, with no qualifications or experience can call themselves a mental health coach without consequence. This means that what I’m about to say is nothing more than my opinion. Granted, an opinion based on years and years of experience but still, just an opinion.

Unless you’re a qualified therapist or counsellor who has undertaken training certified by an accreditation body such as United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) (there are others) then you should absolutely not be attempting to treat or cure any mental health condition, it’s not just unethical but it can be hugely damaging or even dangerous to life and we have lost people to suicide because of (mostly) well-meaning coaches who have done this and got it wrong.

To me, a mental health coach is someone who combines psychotherapy (meaning therapy or counselling skills and approaches) where you actually tackle the mental health issues directly, with coaching skills. The people I consider true mental health coaches typically (not always) first qualify as a therapist and then combine that with coaching skills. This means they can integrate clinical methods and coaching methods in a safe manner.

But this brings us to the third thing we need to be aware of, and that’s where do we draw the line between coaching and therapy or counselling?

If we look at the other end of that scale, where things maybe aren’t as good, this is where we can see mental health conditions (like those I mentioned above) come into the picture and here is where we need to start asking ourselves some difficult questions:

‘Should I coach someone who has a mental health condition?’

If done carefully and correctly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with coaching someone who has a mental health condition, but we need to be having a very open and honest discussion with our client about where the boundaries are. I wrote earlier about what a mental health coach is and the importance of not trying to treat anything unless we’re qualified to do so.

But what we can do is coach around the condition, agreeing with the client what areas of their life they’re happy to explore and where we draw the line. For example, I’ve coached people on why they didn’t want to go for therapy or why they feel reluctant to medications. The idea being if they understand where they stand on it and why then they can explore what options they DO feel comfortable with.

You could maybe speak about their daily routine or building in achievements to their day which will result in a generally positive impact on their mental health. The whole time understanding

See what I mean?

‘Do I feel comfortable with this?’

Let’s not forget, YOU have mental health as well, so you need to be asking yourself, what are you comfortable speaking about? You might be having a session with a client when the topic of bereavement or domestic abuse comes up, these are both powerful topics and unless you’re made of stone will have some kind of impact on you. Are you comfortable with where this is going and are you able to give the client the best of you when speaking about it?

“Have you got an example, Pete?”

I’m glad you asked, imaginary person.

If you’ve read my previous blogs, especially ‘From the bottom of the barrel’ then you’ll know that I suffer from PTSD due to my time spent in Afghanistan when I was in the military. If I’m speaking with a client who is also a veteran and they start speaking about their time in Afghanistan that it’s likely to bring things to the surface for me that at best, mean I can’t give them my full attention, and at worst might send me into a PTSD episode. That being the case I would probably just apologise and explain that I can’t go down that route with them.

At this point, we would take a step back and chat about whether speaking about is crucial to what they’re looking to achieve or can we bypass it. If it’s crucial then I might even say that I’ll help them find another coach who can serve them better.

What do I need to know?’

Look, nobody is expecting you to become a therapist to even discuss the topic of mental health or conditions. It’s also not something we need to be afraid of or dread the client bringing up – in fact, if they do decide to be open with you about their mental health struggles that’s probably a huge compliment on you as a coach – that they’re willing to be that vulnerable with you.

But what we can do is equip ourselves with some basic knowledge of mental health

  • What are the signs that someone is struggling?
  • What are the different conditions?
  • How does someone get support?
  • What is resilience and why is it important?
  • What do I do if I think someone is suicidal (it happens)?

These aren’t just valuable skills as a coach, they’re valuable in life!

You can walk into a session with this stuff in the back of your mind, another string to your bow, feeling confident that if it comes up, you’re ready for it and you know what you’re going to do.

If you decide that you would like to learn more and give yourself the tools to confidently speak with your clients bout mental health then I’m running a workshop in October 2021 to do exactly that. You can grab your ticket HERE