Blog Post: Coaches are Mental Health Professionals

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Before we get any further, let me clarify the title of this blogpost.  Coaches are mental health professionals, but we are NOT mental illness professionals.  There is a big difference.

Beginning in the late 1990’s the field of positive psychology began to emerge in contrast with the traditional and typical pathological approach to human psychology.  In brutally simple terms, the pathological approach aims to find out what’s wrong and to fix it while the positive approach aims to find out what’s right and to foster it.

One of the most significant developments in positive psychology has been the dislodging of mental health from mental illness.  Mental health and mental illness were typically thought of as two ends of the same spectrum.  To have less of one was to have more of the other, and vice versa.  But the pioneering work of Dr. Corey Keyes demonstrates that mental health and mental illness are better thought of as distinct conditions, each constituting its own spectrum from low to high.  A person’s degree of mental illness is not necessarily inversely related to their mental health.  A person can show signs of strong mental health and display symptoms of mental illness.

To help us grasp this concept, compare it to physical health and illness.  What are the symptoms of physical health?  Strength, flexibility, cardiovascular capacity, etc.  Someone can be in great physical condition and still get the flu, or even cancer.  While a severe illness will eventually reduce a person’s physical health, and while a person who is not physically fit is more susceptible to illness, the two are best thought of as being independent of one another.  What is true about the physical is also true about the mental.

The distinction between mental health and mental illness is an important one for coaches.  We do not diagnose or treat mental illness symptoms such as bipolar, chronic depression, anxiety disorders, and such.  We are not trained or equipped to reduce symptoms of mental illness.  On the other hand, we are trained and equipped to foster the symptoms of mental health in our clients.

What are the symptoms of mental health?  Dr. Keyes identified 13 symptoms clustered in three categories:

Positive emotions – positive affect and avowed quality of life

Positive psychological functioning – self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy, and positive relations with others

Positive social functioning – social acceptance, social actualization, social contribution, social coherence, and social integration

The more of these symptoms a person displays, the more that person moves toward flourishing.  The fewer symptoms, the more that person is in a state of languishing.  Keyes research (conducted in 2002) showed that:

  • 17% of the population displayed complete mental health (flourishing) and not experiencing mental illness
  • 12% displayed incomplete mental health (languishing) and not experiencing mental illness.
  • 57% displayed moderate mental health (neither flourishing nor languishing) and were without symptoms of mental illness
  • 14% were experiencing mental illness, regardless of mental health.

When I look at these numbers, I don’t see a society who’s in a mental illness crisis, but one that is experiencing a drought of mental wellness.  And we cannot think of health as the absence of illness.  86% of those studied are without illness, but only 17% were mentally healthy.

Coaches can play a vital role in helping others reach and maintain a high degree of mental health, aka human flourishing.  We do this not by addressing and reducing mental illness, but by knowing the signs of mental health and fostering them.  How do we do this?  Let me offer six suggestions.

  1. Know the signs of health. Review the 13 symptoms mentioned earlier. If needed, look up some of the terms.  What do you notice?  I notice that nearly half relate to a person’s relationships with other people.  I also notice that all of them can be coached.  And, finally, I notice that none of them have much of any relationship to some of the common goals people have (money, fame, physical health, material possessions, etc.).
  2. Envision the signs of health in reality. For example, what would it look like for a person to experience social cohesion? More than likely it would mean being a part of a community, family, or other tight-knit group of people.  It would mean being glued, bonded, connected to other people (cohesion = sticking to form a whole).  Maybe it would mean a person is part of a church that is not whole without this person, or is a sticky and integrated part of a non-profit, or a team at work, or a neighborhood.
  3. Work for mental health in your own life. The symptoms of mental health and well-being are not just for your clients, they are for you so you can experience greater levels of flourishing. You don’t have to be perfectly mentally healthy to be of service to others, but you will be a better coach (and a better person) as you work on yourself and foster greater mental health in your own life.  Your clients are worth the effort and so are you.
  4. Allow mental health to be the client’s agenda. Coaches work to help the client clarify and address the client’s “agenda” – what the client wants. Some clients don’t feel the freedom to bring mental health symptoms into the coaching relationship, either as an agenda item or as the agenda for the coaching relationship.  Sometimes they don’t have the vocabulary.  Sometimes they aren’t sure how important it is.  In your marketing, support resources, intake processes, and general conversation, look for ways to get clients thinking about human flourishing as a goal, help them recognize their own well-being as something coachable (it’s something they can change), and look for connections between how they describe their situation and the symptoms of mental health.
  5. Invite clients to genuinely assess their mental health. A word of advice: do this, but don’t refer to it as mental health. Invite clients to reflect on, assess, and perhaps rate their level of well-being using the 13 symptoms.  More than likely this is best done in a conversation rather than with a questionnaire.  For each symptom, ask the client to describe where, how, how often, and to what degree this symptom shows up.  For example, on social cohesion you might ask,
    • What groups do you belong to?
    • Who are your strongest relationships?
    • Who are you doing life with such that their losses and gains are your losses and gains?
    • Who will you stick with no matter what?

When a client lacks a sign of mental health, the coach might be tempted to comfort the client by minimizing the significance of the detriment.  This is not the time for comfort; it is time for encouragement and challenge.  I often say something along the lines of, “Being tight-knit with other people is a big deal.  Research shows it’s one of the most significant contributors to your well-being there is.  So it’s certainly something you don’t want to ignore.  Ignoring it would be like having the winning lottery ticket and not cashing it in.”

  1. Design actions to increase symptoms. Recognizing the presence or absence of mental health symptoms is not that helpful if the new awareness is not translated into new actions that can result in new realities. Now is not the time to give advice or solve the client’s problem.  Now is the time to draw out the client’s creativity and resourcefulness so they can identify solutions and design next steps.  These symptoms of mental health don’t just happen – they are the result of intentionality, change, risk, and effort.  Support your client as they figure out what to do and find the motivation to do the hard work necessary to reach new levels of health and well-being.

One last suggestion.  Address mental health as a positive thing, not as a problem.  Life today is filled with plenty of anxiety-producing, stressful, negative news.  Your client doesn’t need to think of a lack of mental health symptoms as one more problem to fix.  Instead, it’s an opportunity to explore, a new level of living to experience, and a blessing to embrace.

I hope you and your coaching relationships will be a catalyst for mental health for those you serve.  We coach in service to the One who came to bring life, and life in abundance.  When we promote mental health for our clients, we are truly joining God in the work He is doing.  Amen!

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