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Let’s Talk…About Mental Health and Mental Illness

Posted by Verity Symcox | September 30, 2019 | Comments (2)

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.

Let’s Talk Statistics for a Moment…

Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that one in four people suffer with mental illness. Of particular prevalence are depression and anxiety disorders. Worryingly, figures of mental illness are understood to be incredibly inaccurate due to the stigma surrounding mental health. While there are many social and organizational initiatives seeking to remove this stigma and improve mental well-being, organizational mental health presenteeism is prevalent and an enormous economic challenge. What’s more, stress and unhealthy workplaces significantly increase the likelihood of developing a mental illness.

Over the last 20 years, there have been several calls for coaches to acknowledge mental health. In 2002, Steven Berglas identified the organizational damage of coaching if the psychological issues of leaders aren’t attended to. In 2009, Diane Coutu and Carol Kauffmann discovered coaches are frequently hired to coach personal issues beyond the professional context. Anthony Grant, Linley Curtayne and Geraldine Burton proposed that between 25% and 50% of all coaching clients have clinically significant levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

What Does This Mean to Coaching?

The coaches interviewed considered mental health and mental illness a real, practical issue facing the coaching industry. My research suggests that many coaches are actively seeking a deeper understanding of mental health in coaching practice and want practical support in knowing how to appropriately respond. Coaches identified that mental illness isn’t always beyond the boundary of coaching.

What Can You Do as a Coach?

Think about how you would support a client whose mental health declined during coaching; how would you explore any concerns you had with them? If needed, who or where would you refer the client to? Would you continue to support your client? And if so, how?

My Final Thoughts…

I believe that coaching can feel therapeutic and does improve well-being, but the concept of mental health within coaching practice is incredibly complex. More research is needed to fully understand mental health in coaching.



Verity Symcox will be exploring this topic more in-depth at ICF Converge 2019, which is taking place October 23-26 in Prague, Czech Republic. Join her session “Are Coaches Really Aware of Mental Health Issues?” in the Science content group on Friday, October 25 at 1:00 p.m. (local time). By attending this session, you can earn 1.0 CC/0.5 RD in Continuing Coach Education units.

verity symcox headshot

Verity Symcox

Verity Symcox is a Coach and Behavioral Change Specialist with a passion for understanding and researching mental health within coaching practice. Verity has a background in counseling studies (CPCAB) and a MSc in Coaching and Behavioral Change from Henley Business School, UK. Verity began coaching in 2012, becoming a qualified Hermann Brain Dominance Practitioner (HBDI). She is also a certified NLP practitioner. Before coaching, Verity ran a successful retail business winning her several regional business awards where she was avid about promoting entrepreneurship and SME business growth. Verity’s passion for exploring mental health within coaching practice comes from numerous coaching experiences that have shaped her career and her desire to ensure coaching practice meets the needs of all clients, in which promoting mental wellness is integral to the natural coaching process.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (2)

  1. Lyn Stafford says:

    Hi there, I am very passionate about mental health and those who struggle with it as I myself was diagnosed with anxiety and major depressive disorder 22 years ago. My last episode landed me in the psychiatric hospital for 3 months. I sincerely thought my life was over and that I would never live a normal life but be on 5 medications and battle this thing for the rest of my life. Well, today (7 years later) I am on one low dose of a medicine and have a wonderful, fulfilling life free from anxiety and depression! This is due to a number of things like going to a professional counsellor, eating well, using supplements geared to brain health, exercising….being in community etc. I have been looking at taking a life coach course that addresses things like this and is specific to coaching those who struggle with their mental health. Ive had no luck finding one yet for some reason. When a person is dealing with depression and anxiety, I feel that they could greatly benefit from having a life coach in their life to not only listen but to encourage them to get the help they need in all areas of their life- their soul (mind, and emotions), their spirit and their physical body. They desperately need motivation in this as it all gets taken away when struggling with mental health. I feel there is a huge need out there for this!

  2. Ellie Davis says:

    I had no idea that one in four people will suffer from mental illness according to some statistics. My husband and I are thinking about how to improve his company’s efficiency, and we are looking for advice to help him. I will let him know about your recommendations to help him prevent mental problems in his workplace.

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