Coaching and Mental Illness
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
“Coaching is normally seen as an activity to enhance performance and achievement of goals” (Buckley, 2010, p. 394).
When coaches talk about clients in terms of mental health needs, these clients are better served by related fields like counseling or clinical psychology, not coaching or its cousin, coaching psychology.
There are many psychologists and other mental health professionals who have found coaching to be an appealing alternative to therapeutic practice. However, Anthony Grant cautions that these therapists-turned-coaches should not merely “act as a coach.” Instead, they should “develop coaching skills and psychological frameworks that go beyond existing clinical or counselling frameworks and applications” (Grant, 2006, p. 16).
Grant argues that in order for the field and profession of coaching to exist as a viable, independent discipline, it needs to differentiate itself from counseling and the mental illness, psychopathology model.
For coaches not from a mental health background (and even those who are) what follows should be required consideration in working with clients.
Peltier (2010, p. 304) asserts, “[C]oaches are not psychotherapists or doctors…[T]herapy is not their job.” However, coaches must still realize that in coaching sessions, they may be confronted with psychopathology. For this reason, it is important for coaches to be proficient in identifying clients who may need mental health counseling. On a related note, it is equally important for coaches to recognize their own need to be trained to spot mental health issues or signs of potential mental illness.
Peltier (2010) states that three mental disorders are most disabling and thus should quickly be referred to the appropriate mental health professionals. They are:
* The three listed above (schizophrenia, bipolar, and dementia) usually require the intervention of a psychiatrist and a combination of medication and psychotherapy. ** For more details about these and other mental disorders, please consult the DSM-IV. *** See Chapter 14 “Psychopathology and Coaching” of Peltier’s book “The Psychology of Executive Coaching” for a more in-depth coverage of this topic.
Peña & Cooper (2010) recommend referring coaching clients when the following mental health issues are present (this is not an exhaustive list, there are many more):
High level of distress
Persistent low mood
Sense of hopelessness
Buckley (2010) states that when coaches are faced with mental health issues they should ask three questions:
Can my coaching help? (Remember the purpose of coaching)
What are my limitations?
Should my coaching continue?
Buckley proposes a four-stage process to help guide a coach in making a decision:
Recognize that some people may have mental health problems that make coaching inappropriate
Understand the signs & symptoms of mental illness and be able to question the client further when necessary
Understand the ethical, legal, and professional standards and practices
Ask “What next?” Continue coaching, stop coaching or refer for medical help?
On the subject of coaching and mental illness, this statement sums it up best:
“Any diagnosis, treatment, ways to help or exploration of underlying issues is the province of mental health specialists and is best avoided” (Buckley, 2010, p. 395).
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Buckley, A. (2010). Coaching and Mental Health. In E. Cox, T. Bachkirova, & D. Clutterbuck (Eds.), The complete handbook of coaching (pp.394-404). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Grant, A.M. (2006). A personal perspective on professional coaching and the development of coaching psychology. International Coaching Psychology Review, 1(1), 12-22.
Peltier, B. (2010). The psychology of executive coaching: Theory and application (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Peña, M.A., & Cooper, C.L. (2010). Coaching and stress. In J. Passmore (Ed.), Excellence in coaching: The industry guide (2nd ed.) (pp. 189-203). London: Kogan Page.