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"How do I best support a client in distress?"

This blog is intended for coaches and trainee coaches looking to deepen their capability and confidence in coaching.


We are living through a time of great uncertainty which is bringing stress to most of us and trauma to many. Whilst clients may come for coaching to clarify and navigate the next steps in their professional and personal development, it is not uncommon for them in the process to uncover areas of acute or chronic psychological pain. Why is it important for us to recognise both the benefits and limits of coaching in supporting those experiencing psychological distress?

Firstly, from the perspective of the ICF, it is a coach's ethical responsibility to encourage a client to seek help from a suitably qualified mental health professional if they are experiencing issues which interfere with their daily functioning. If there is imminent danger of someone harming themselves or others, you have a duty to call the emergency services or other appropriate support and stay with them until help arrives.

When initially contracting with your clients it is a good idea to include a caveat to confidentiality to allow for cases where for the sake of the safety of your client or another, you would not be able to keep information confidential - for example if your client confesses suicidal ideation. If you are contracted by an organisation it will be important to clarify with them the boundaries of confidentiality between you and the organisation and also then to ensure your client is aware of this so that you do not promise to keep confidential something which you are contracted to disclose.

It is also a good idea to have both emergency service contact details and contacts of trusted mental health professionals to whom you can refer clients.

Secondly, understanding the warning signs may allow us to raise awareness with our clients of the extent of their own distress, which may have been creeping up on them. Warning signs could include:

  • Marked changes in mood such as irritability, anger, anxiety, or sadness

  • Decline in performance at work or school

  • Withdrawal from social relationships and activities

  • Changes in weight and appearance, including negligence of personal hygiene

  • Disturbances in sleep (either oversleeping or difficulty falling or staying asleep)

  • Expressing hopelessness or suicidal thoughts

We might gently ask question or raise our observations in a way that allows a client to see for his/herself that they would benefit from seeking more specific help. We may also help normalise the idea of therapy for someone who would otherwise find the idea of therapy as challenging.

Thirdly, coaching and therapy are not an either/or: a client might benefit from working with a coach on how to function in their professional and personal lives whilst dealing with mental health challenges and at the same time seek specific help in alleviating those conditions. Having a coach who understands and appreciates what they are dealing with in addition to the challenges of every day life may be very supportive, especially if they are unwilling to share this information with a manager.

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