When it comes to Mental Health, can coaching work?

What is Mental Health?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as

“a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”21.

World Health Organisation

Mental Health, therefore, is a collection of things, also including, emotional and behavioural health, which in turn have links with our physical health.  We all have Mental Health and it is mental “ill” health that we need to be concerned with.  We don’t need to be labelled with a “condition” to need a little support sometimes either.

We might experience changes in life or work, which might result in “collateral damage”.  That damage is likely temporary and potentially even “normal” under the circumstances.   We can look at the impact of poor mental health in several ways, but one distinction is whether the suffering is functional or dysfunctional1.

To expand, the extent to which the persons’ reactions to the situation are “normal” in that situation, or are they unusual.  “Normal” doesn’t make it feel any easier, but the difference helps in understanding what support is most likely to help alleviate it.  Any change has the potential to trigger a deep-rooted trauma, which may result in a more detailed diagnosis, and the requirement for specialist help.

There are various “phenomenon” or “beliefs” which affect our mental functioning but are not strictly “Mental Health” issues, for example, Perfectionism (excessive desire to improve) or Imposter Phenomenon (feeling like a fraud).   ​The effects of such experiences should not be underestimated, however, as they too can be debilitating.

Diagnosed Mental Health issues need to be dealt with by a trained mental health professional, however as discussed, there are a range of conditions, many sitting within the scope of coaching.

Description of Coaching: 

Coaching is a partnership between Coach and Client in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires the client to maximize personal and professional potential28

International Coach Federation

Designed to facilitate the creation/development of personal or professional goals and to develop and carry out a strategy/plan for achieving those goals, it is a collaborative process.

It is a growth-promoting mechanic that encourages personal responsibility, reflective thinking, self-discovery and self-efficacy (a person’s belief in his or her ability to succeed)17.

​The principles of coaching include building trust, maintaining presence in the moment, evoking awareness and facilitating growth. As such, by implementing coaching principles the coach is already promoting mental health even if this is not the intended outcome14

How might coaching help? 

The HBR (Harvard Business Review) ran a study of 140 coaches and found that even in executive coaching, personal issues came up 76% of the time18.  The relationship between our personal and working lives are strongly interlinked and many people find coaching significantly improves their work-life balance.

People come to coaching for all types of areas of their personal and professional life.  Often the “presenting issue” is not the root of the discomfort and the things people want to work on are “beneath the surface” topics.  For example, someone may come to coaching because they feel like there is too much “pressure” from work and life when underneath that, it’s lack of confidence that is the issue.

People bring topics such as stress, anxiety, recovery from injury, life direction, grief, relationships, career and everything in between!  Underneath many of these areas lie questions; in our behaviours, beliefs and assumptions of ourselves and the world in which we exist.  Coaching builds self-awareness, explores and unlocks some of the things we’ve believed or assumed to be true. 

Ultimately, it is about growing into the person we want to be, through identifying our unique resources, keeping the strengths and characteristics that serve us well and discarding or re-framing those beliefs, assumptions and behaviours that limit us.

Why Coaching and not Counselling?

Whereas counselling might focus on dysfunction and “what’s wrong?”, coaching considers the person to be whole, and asks “how might coaching help?” and “what do you need?”3.

​Coaching can improve resiliency and self-efficacy4, and studies have shown some people even choose coaching over other mental health services because coaching is an optimistic, strength-based and solution-focused approach.  One study found people gain a more thorough understanding of how one approaches life and feel better equipped to deal with future problems7. A further study found that people reported a greater sense of agency and a sense of potential achievement in their lives6

Whilst counselling looks to diminish symptoms and disabilities, coaching seeks to develop resilience, strengths and performance.  The past does not dictate the future.  In coaching, we acknowledge past experiences whilst supporting the creation of new ones and unlock potential by taking action to change13.

Other work in this area describes how coaching creates a goal to change the thinking or behaviour patterns behind people’s issues and open up new paths for transformation, as a result of taking a fresh perspective12.  And we also know that being able to see different perspectives develops resilience.

Coaching tends to be a shorter process12, 13 with clients reporting faster results, thus having a more immediate impact.  Coaching focuses on action, using evocative enquiry and explores new possibilities, whereas counselling helps people process psychological issues, focusing on symptom reduction through comfort, and healing17.  Counsellors may teach skills or make recommendations, whereas Coaches will partner with people, encouraging them to call on their innate strengths and resources.  The table below expands on the differences.

The stigma associated with “getting help” in the form of counselling is another point to note.  This stigma can cause people to not pursue help or support in the form of talk therapy/counselling when symptoms or concerns are first noticed. At the point at which someone notices they may need support, the person often just needs a supportive space to deal with issues such as a difficult situation, dealing with stress, increasing self- esteem, dealing with self-doubt, making changes for example.  Coaching does not have the same social stigma and coaches are well equipped to support a client to work through these types of issues, as well as working to increase self-confidence and much more14.  There is high acceptability for coaching and this innovative approach is in great demand9.

Coaching can help people develop tailor-made strategies to work with issues and “normalise” what’s going on for them so they don’t feel alone. And where necessary, it can offer a portal to further specialist help, including therapy15.

Coaches will not make any diagnosis, nor attempt to “treat”.  Due to the exploratory nature of the process of coaching, other issues may surface as part of the conversations.  Some might be better handled with an expert, e.g. nutrition, exercise or sleep specialists.  Equally, if an issue is uncovered that turns out to be deep-rooted and the person struggles to move past it, then counselling might be identified as a better option, to process the significant event/trauma.  Coaches will highlight this and discuss the best option for the client, signposting as required.  They will also use indicators as a guide, from accredited professional bodies such as the ICF (International Coach Federation).27.

Differences in approach to recovery based Counselling and Coaching 9, 17, 24, 25, 26

Recovery is about building a meaningful and satisfying life, as defined by the people themselves, whether or not there are ongoing symptoms or problems  People are not broken; they do not need to be fixed. Coaching is about uncovering what people truly want, their core values and supporting them to be aware of their own resourcefulness  
The helping relationship between clinicians and people moves means that the relationship is very much one of expert–patientThe coaching relationship is a partnership of equals, more than anything parental or advisory. It can be seen as a partnership on a journey of self-discovery.  
Hope is central to recovery and can be enhanced by people discovering how they can have more active control over their lives and by seeing how others have found a way forwardPeople have the resources and skills to make any change they want  
Focus is on pathology, illness and symptomsThe power of focus – what we focus on we get and can link to towards focusing on health, strengths and wellness
People are encouraged to develop their skills in self-care and self-management in whatever way works for them. There is no ‘one size fits all’People can generate their own solutions. An individual is ultimately responsible for the results they are generating
Recovery is about separating the person from the illness or disabilityThe past does not dictate the future. Coaching creates new stories and unlocks individuals true potential by taking action to change their lives
Finding meaning in and valuing personal experience is important, as is personal faith, for which some will draw on religious or secular spiritualityThe spiritual aspect of coaching looks at who we truly are and our purpose in life
Works with the illnessWorks with the person
Explore psychological issues and learn how to process themClients focus on taking action and achieving related goals
Clients show higher levels of distress and may struggle to function in daily lifePeople are often functioning well in spite of the mental health issues
Symptom reduction is targeted with comfort, healing and recoveryConversations evoke awareness help clients lean into change
Information may be shared, skills taught and recommendations givenGoal setting is a partnership, facilitating the process of change whilst investigating new perspectives and possibilities

What things might it help with?

We have already discussed that it can help with stress and anxiety, so it is useful to consider here some of the causes of that, namely, unhelpful thinking or behaviour patterns, for example –

  • Memories – using bad outcomes from past experiences to affect the now
  • Black and White – Seeing a situation as black and white/good and bad and not seeing the options in-between
  • Shoulds and Musts – thinking “I should” or “I must” and setting up unrealistic expectations
  • Mind Reading – Assuming that we know what the other person is thinking
  • Prediction– Believing that we know what the outcome of a situation will be before it happens
  • Catastrophising – Believing that the worst possible scenario will be the outcome of a situation
  • Awfulising – re-living of events and focusing on how awful things were
  • Imposter Syndrome – feeling like a fraud and life’s achievements have just been “lucky”
  • Perfectionism – unable to see a job well done, continually wishing to do more to improve things
  • People Pleasing – constant need to please others/unable to say to no, to our own detriment
  • Procrastination – always putting things off, rather than planning or getting on to do them
  • Comparison – Seeing the positives in others compared to the negatives in ourselves
  • Self-Critical – taking responsibility for a situation and using that for self-doubt

What does it feel like? 

Generally, people aren’t used to talking about themselves in this way and it can feel a little uncomfortable to start with.  It’s rare for us to say what we REALLY think, and for someone to reflect that back at us or challenge our thinking in a supportive way.  It doesn’t take long, however, before people realise the opportunity that it provides, and that talking helps us think things through, to come up with our own solutions to challenges we are facing. 

Finding our own answers then gives us that sense of achievement, heightening our belief in ourselves and showing us how much control we have over what we are doing.  The more energy, honesty and openness that you put in, the finer the results will be!

People say27:

“It was great to have that space, free from judgement, to process my thoughts”

“Insightful questions and support allowed me to develop strategies for both personal and professional growth”

“Having what’s important to me clear, makes it easy to factor in when making decisions and is an empowering place to be”

“I found the coaching extremely approachable and felt I could access a very warm trusting space.   We considered multiple different ways to address my limiting beliefs. I feel that over three weeks I have made enormous progress and there are tangible outcomes which have been achieved just during that short period”

“I was on a trajectory to hit rock bottom.  I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t exercising and my job was making me extremely unhappy.  I couldn’t see a way out.  My outlook on life has completely changed… I now have techniques to continue to learn and develop and be ready for the next thing”

Who is coaching suitable for? 

People who:

  • have issues not “severe” enough for mental health counselling17, but could use some help and support in taking a proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing
  • are functioning well, and not in serious psychological or emotional distress or crisis17
  • are ready to take responsibility for addressing issues
  • want to be part of building plans and taking action
  • want to work with a coach in a joint venture, entering into a partnership to focus on making changes together
  • are willing to explore what is possible, to become your own expert not only in identifying early warning signs and what works, but also in self-management13


People report the benefits of coaching when supporting mental health as; reducing symptoms, increasing productivity, creativity, performance and confidence, a better work-life balance, increased concentration, reduced fatigue, improved self-management, better social functioning, attainment of goals and a feeling of being better equipped to manage change and different emotions9,11.

A study focusing on preventing mental health issues in young people found that it creates a process, a positive relationship and a set of skills where the person, through growing accountability, awareness and responsibility, develops choice and control over their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This in turn helps them to deal with their situations8.  We know these are factors that influence well-being, namely social connections, a sense of purpose, ability to make choices and a sense of control are all key Emotional Needs19.

People develop a growth mindset, leading to creativity and a positive outlook.  They improve confidence, get more productive, renew their motivation and become more action orientated.  More key factors which influence our resilience and well-being20.  Feeling more capable empowers people to lead more fulfilling lives, using their own solutions and strategies to navigate work and life.

There is much more research demonstrating further positive outcomes of coaching21 such as increasing leadership resilience, improved flexibility in dealing with organisational change, enhanced solution-focus thinking, greater change-readiness and the capacity to cope with or recover from the uncertainties organisational change brings.  This in turn builds skills for personal situations changing too.  Furthermore, coaching in challenging times can bring even more benefits such as heightened emotional intelligence (for example, increased self-awareness and ability to be kind to oneself); becoming better at self-care and managing energy, and appreciating the complexity of humankind and being less judgmental23.

A key point to note is that through coaching, resilience is built, through the development of improved self-awareness, providing individuals with the capacity to identify triggers and early warning signs that their mental health might be deteriorating.  This leads them to seek help sooner, and reduce the risk of chronic mental health conditions, and from an organizational perspective, reduce the chances of absenteeism, presenteeism and leavism, which all impact the bottom line of a business.   

Finding our own answers gives us that sense of achievement, heightening our belief in ourselves and showing us how much control we really have over what we are doing.  The more energy, honesty and openness that is put in, the better the results will be!

Inspired to find out more about coaching? Give me a call, drop me a mail – let’s explore your needs.

Sheela Hobden www.bluegreencoaching.com

Sheela Hobden is a Coach at bluegreen Coaching.  Following her own mental health battles, she now coaches individuals, runs training sessions and speaks at conferences.  She has a real passion for helping medics and healthcare professionals take as much care of themselves as they do their patients in whatever life or career conundrums they face!  She is also a Mentor Coach and Coach Supervisor. She has a PGCERT in Business and Personal Coaching, holds PCC member status with the ICF and is CIPD qualified. She challenges herself with ultra distance running and Ironman.  Find her at www.bluegreencoaching.com or swimming in the sea, in Poole, Dorset

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1 – Buckley, A. and Buckley, C. (2006).  A Guide to Coaching and Mental Health, Routledge, UK

3 – Buckley, A. (2007) ‘The mental health boundary in relationship to coaching and other activities’, International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring (S1), pp.17-23. Available at: https://radar.brookes.ac.uk/radar/items/69d51e6f-7b81-4312-898a-001caa5dc9ce/1/ (Accessed: 19 May 2021).

4 – LEE, J. A. et al. Evaluation of a Resiliency Focused Health Coaching Intervention for Middle School Students: Building Resilience for Healthy Kids Program. American Journal of Health Promotion, [s. l.], v. 35, n. 3, p. 344–351, 2021. DOI 10.1177/0890117120959152. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asx&AN=149575779&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed: 19 May 2021.

6 – ANDREW PENDLE; NICK ROWE; DAVID BRITTEN. Coaching in a non-clinical setting with coachees who access mental health services. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, [s. l.], v. 15, n. 1, p. 78–93, 2017. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsdoj&AN=edsdoj.478da4ba0be746959b3c9d479c9b81eb&site=eds-live&scope=s ite. Accessed: 19 May 2021.

7 Samuel J. C. Schrevel; Christine Dedding; Jacqueline E. W. Broerse. In: SAGE Open, Vol 6 (2016); SAGE Publishing, 2016 accessed 19 May21

8 Robson-Kelly, Liz; van Nieuwerburgh, Christian. International Coaching Psychology Review. Mar2016, Vol. 11 Issue 1, p75-92. 18p. 1 Diagram, 3 Charts. Accessed https://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/results?vid=23&sid=dcc3a1ea-1ad7-4008-b4d3-ed6274109d4a%40sdc-v-sessmgr01&bquery=coaching+mental+health&bdata=JmNsaTA9RlQxJmNsdjA9WSZ0eXBlPTAmc2VhcmNoTW9kZT1BbmQmc2l0ZT1lZHMtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl 19May21

 9 BISHOP, L. A scoping review of mental health coaching. Coaching Psychologist, [s. l.], v. 14, n. 1, p. 5–15, 2018. Disponível em: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=plh&AN=129917160&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed at https://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=35&sid=dcc3a1ea-1ad7-4008-b4d3-ed6274109d4a%40sdc-v-sessmgr01 19 May21

 11 https://coachfoundation.com/blog/mental-health-coach/

 12 https://www.coaching-online.org/mental-health-coach/

13 Bora, R., Leaning, S., Moores, A., & Roberts, G. (2010). Life coaching for mental health recovery: The emerging practice of recovery coaching. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 16(6), 459-467. doi:10.1192/apt.bp.108.006536

14 https://coachcampus.com/coach-portfolios/research-papers/carol-ann-furminger-coaching-for-mental-health/

15 How coaching staff can help them deal with change and stress, By Liz Hall on 2 Jun 2017 in Personnel Today accessed https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/coaching-employees-can-help-deal-change-stress/ accessed 28th May 2021

17 Health Coaching vs. Counseling: What’s the Difference? Published on March 6, 2020 by Kelli Saginak, EdD, A-CFHC, NBC-HWC accessed at: https://kresserinstitute.com/

18 Diane Coutu and Carol Kauffman, Executive Coaching Research Report, HBR, Jan 2009 Accessed at https://www.slideshare.net/exercizeguy/hbr-study-of-executive-coaching