In one of my first team coaching workshops, I was pulled aside by the CEO moments before I was about to begin and made privy to a very sensitive piece of information; a member of the board of directors, who was part of this team workshop, had just returned to work after having a very public breakdown. I was not prepared. Should I continue as planned? Should I adapt the workshop now? Should I stop and leave? Did everyone know? Should I acknowledge this? In my head, the list of rhetorical questions went on and on…I decided to continue, mindful of this new information.
That event sparked my interest in mental health and just recently, I set out to research mental health in coaching practice. I discovered that I am not alone in my experiences of mental health.
Almost all of the coaches I interviewed believed they had encountered mental illness within a coaching agreement, and just over half had knowingly coached a client suffering from a mental illness. Exactly half of coaches interviewed had actively undertaken additional mental health training to better support clients. One hundred percent of coaches interviewed were credentialed with a professional body and familiar with industry standards, ethics and guidelines (ICF, EMCC, AC).
What the professional bodies say…
Coaching professional bodies and the recent ICF practice guidelines “Referring a Client to Therapy” by Alicia Hullinger and Joel DiGirolamo, stipulate mental health as the boundary between coaching practice and therapy, and therefore coaches should refer clients suffering from mental illness to therapy. This suggests that coaching is for functioning, mentally healthy clients and only these clients can engage in the coaching process.
Yes, this boundary recognizes that coaches are not mental health professionals and remedial work is better suited to therapeutic interventions, but it assumes that coaches know enough about mental health to uphold this boundary and make appropriate referrals.
So, if coaches are typically untrained in mental health, how do coaches know if a client is mentally ill?
My research showed that coaches don’t necessarily know if a client is mentally ill. Coaches instead focus on ensuring coaching remains the most appropriate intervention for the client at this time. Participant coaches disclosed that they did this because they recognized that not only are they typically untrained in mental health, the symptoms of mental illness are too similar to many of the regular, acceptable challenges clients bring to coaching.