Jenny Rogers

And how’s your mental health?

Can there be a coach anywhere in the world who does not know and use the Wheel of Life? Thank you Ms or Mr Anon-Coach-Therapist who invented it. Yes, it’s an oldie, but that does not mean it has lost its usefulness. As part of the first session, the Intake Session as coaches in the US call it, it is a robust tool. It gives you and the client permission to see that even when, as in executive coaching, the focus is on work, the whole person is always present. It is an opportunity for the client to disclose whatever they feel safe to mention, a chance for them to give you vital information which will affect everything else they have come to discuss.

wheel of life
The Wheel of Life

In my own practice I see it as a way to add finesse to the overall goal-setting process for the coaching programme rather than immediately plunging into coaching the client on whatever issues emerge. Coaches vary on how they use it. You may prefer to send it to the client in advance or just whip it out at the session itself. Or, alternatively, you may say, ‘Let’s do a scan of your whole life’ and just ask the questions, holding the framework in your head.

A few months ago I attended a workshop on coaching and mental health. This was a disappointing experience by and large, but I came away with one huge revelation: that I had never explicitly asked a client about their mental health. Often, clients have told me anyway, especially if they are on medication or have some kind of long-standing mental health problem. What struck me forcibly as a result of this workshop was that I had probably avoided asking this question specifically and that the most probable reason was that I was sharing the taboo about discussing it. This was uncomfortable to contemplate as if you had asked me about my willingness to talk about mental health I would certainly have declared myself free from this kind of lily-livered and unnecessary delicacy. But perhaps I was not as free and enlightened as I had thought.

There is another possible explanation for my hesitation. I have long felt that mental illness is over-diagnosed. Ordinary human experiences such as sadness, worry, bereavement or small changes in mood have been medicalized by pharmaceutical companies eager to make a profit. See the recent excellent BBC programme, Billion Dollar Deals and How They Changed Your World,  But this still leaves a core of human distress which genuinely falls into the category of mental illness. As coaches, we need to ask.

So now, in that first session, when I get to the health wedge of the familiar Wheel, I ask, as I always have,  ‘How’s your health?’ Clients typically reply with answers about their physical health, including how they stay fit – or guiltily describe their wish to make more effort. Then I ask, ‘And what about your mental health?’

The answers have astonished me with their candour and importance:

‘Mine is good, but my husband has a paralyzing depression and I’m finding it tough to keep going. His mood affects mine and it’s a struggle.’ (Senior accountant in the NHS)

‘I’ve had OCD since I was a teenager and I need medication to keep it under control. You may see me trying to do some of my rituals (he describes them) and if you do, please challenge me.’ (Performing arts specialist)

‘I think I’m borderline bi-polar. In our coaching I need to discuss the strategy for expanding my organization but if you have any suspicion that I am getting too excited and grandiose, please raise it as a question!’ (Chief Executive, Charity)

‘I get panic attacks and have had treatment for Anxiety Disorder. I’m worried that it might happen in this job interview and I’m tempted to ask my GP for beta-blockers as well as some diazepam’. (Interview coaching client)

‘OK at the moment, but I grew up with a mother who I see now was severely depressed and I worry that I might have a tendency to be the same’ (Architect)

Good follow up questions, depending on what the client has said, might be

How are you right now?

How do you feel this could affect the work we will be doing?

What else might I need to know here?

What professional help are you getting with these issues?

Perhaps these clients would have disclosed all of this anyway in due course, but my belief is that they would not have done so quickly and some might not have done it at all. Having this information at the outset made a radical difference to the work we were able to do and accelerated the vital process of creating trust.

So now I divide that health wedge on the Wheel of Life into three: physical health, physical fitness and mental health. So simple. But this is my 26th year as a coach and I have only just started doing it.

What do you think? We’d love to see any comments on this, so please feel free to use the form below to add to the conversation.

Update 7 Nov 2017: Unfortunately, due to large quantities of spam, we’ve had to close comments on this post. If you want add anything to the discussion, please use the site’s contact form and we’ll add it to this post manually.

5 Replies to “And how’s your mental health?”

  1. Jenny. Thanks so much. This advice is so powerful in it’s simplicity. Taking the notion that mental health is a subject that should not be taboo and incorporating it into a practical tool that allows space for an important discussion without making a fuss. Brilliant! I’m looking forward to trying this out with my next coaching client.

    1. It is simple – and straightforward. But I have also realized that no coach has ever asked me that question either… If they had, I would have been perfectly willing to answer candidly and the coaching would have been so much better, without my ever expecting that the coach would have tried to venture into therapeutic territory.

  2. Jenny you are always so great at dispelling those bits of coaching that we have always been told to avoid at all costs. And here’s another one! So sensible – and obviously important to how the rest of the programme may pan out. I shall no longer feel guilty about straying beyond this particular boundary.

    1. But isn’t it odd and a little worrying that all that unhelpful stuff about the rigidity of ‘boundaries’ persists into this new generation of coaches? On every training course I meet at least one anxious person who believes that if a client cries they are probably candidates for therapy or that ‘Feelings’ have no place in workplace coaching.

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