The statistics around mental health show us that it is likely that, as coaches, we will encounter individuals with anxiety, stress conditions, burnout, depression and other psychological disorders – we will already have clients who live with these conditions. We know that one in four people will experience a mental ill-health occurrence over the course of a year.

We know that 40% of men aged 18–45 have considered committing suicide, and that suicide is the biggest cause of death in the UK for men under 45. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, and the ages of 35 to 60 are the most anxious years. With the prevalence of mental health issues, it’s likely that many coaches and clients have a mental ill-health condition they are living with, even if they choose not to disclose it. With the addition of Covid 19 we know that we’re dealing with an anxious world.

In his book Lost Connections’, Johann Hari argues that depression is not an illness that can be reliably cured medically; instead, it is a longing for connection to self and community, how relevant is this in today’s world of isolation.

‘What if depression is, in fact, a form of grief – for our own lives not being as they should?  What if it is a form of grief for the connections we have lost, yet still need?

 My experience in coaching individuals with stress-related issues and mental ill-health began without any decision on my part; it happened gradually as more and more of my clients shared their health concerns or mentioned their mental ill-health condition. I knew I needed to increase my knowledge, but I never turned anyone away. Coaches have a role to play in creating and holding a space where individuals and companies can choose to be more open and no longer fear the stigma of mental illness. With this transparency comes permission to learn, provide relevant support and create compassionate working cultures.

Coaches have important skills they can use

Coaches have important skills that are foundations for supporting individuals in the workplace.  Many coaches have a therapeutic background or specific training where coaching and counselling connect.  By all means supplement these skills with relevant knowledge, for example, a Mental Health First Aid course. While coaches are in a strong position to support people, we are of course no replacement for trained medical practitioners. If as a coach you have cause for concern, do not exceed the bounds of your remit.

Find out what help is available, in-house company services such as an Employee Assistance Programme or Occupational Health; or external services such as Community Health Services, Mind, Sane are good examples.  Don’t walk away from an emergency find the most suitable help available.

This approach contrasts with the common perception of coaching as a tool that focuses on the positive: What do you want? What’s your dream? What if anything is possible? What’s your best future? If you are a client with anxiety or depression, the answers to these questions might seem impossible. Hetty Enzig writes, ‘our very task is to light a candle in the darkness. As coaches, perhaps we can learn to be more confident being in the shadows with our clients, understanding that in order to re-engage people with a true sense of self and purpose, which may be lost for now, it’s beneficial to spend some time in darkness.

Call for action

In my experience, this is where true meaning, connection and purpose arise. Once we find the treasure in the cave we fear, despair and depression cease to overwhelm us. We know that having someone to talk to is one of the most helpful interventions in mental ill-health, whether that ill-health is temporary or long term.

As coaches we can choose to use our skills and knowledge in this space.  With the event of Covid 19 coaches are being asked to fill a need to work with those on the front line and those isolated at home – there is a lot of good we can do, even if it’s just being human and listening.

Executive Coach Valerie Stevenson is a leadership and transitions coaching specialising in building emotional resilience and well-being.