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When and How to Refer a Client to Therapy?

written byAlicia M. Hullingeron 12/07/2018

In coaching the focus is typically about visioning, success, the present, and moving into the future. Occasionally, it may become apparent that the client is emotionally unhealthy or is having trouble in daily life. This may indicate a need for something beyond coaching, such as therapy, which is clearly beyond the scope of coaching. With mental health issues on the rise globally, the chances of working with a client who is experiencing an issue related to mental health are high.

In service to the client, your role is to provide support, offer options and identify resources for getting the help they need. In some cases, when they are experiencing a mental health issue, the client may need to seek the service of a mental health professional.

Mental health issues are on a spectrum and vary in duration, frequency, and intensity. It is not up to the coach to diagnose or treat mental health issues. Instead, the coach should refer the client to the appropriate professional for diagnosis and treatment. Early intervention for a mental health issue increases the chances of the client getting better, sooner.

As a coach, when and how do you refer a client to therapy? The International Coach Federation (ICF) conducted research to help coaches understand when and how to refer a client to a mental health professional. From that research, they created a reference sheet and a set of guidelines for coaches to help them be more confident and prepared in these situations.

Some things coaches should monitor and consider when making a referral:

  • Is the client functioning in their daily activities for well-being (professional, personal or social)?
  • Is the client actively and productively managing any behavioral patterns or symptoms?
  • Is the client making ongoing progress toward their coaching goals?

If the answer is no to one or more of the questions above, then the client might benefit from a mental health professional.

Six Practical Tips

  1. Understand the ICF Code of Ethics and complete the ICF online module on ethics.
  2. Maintain a list of reliable helping professionals, their contact information and the services they offer. This list is a reference and resource for you and your client. Other resources include talking to a trusted friend, colleague, clergy person or community member; going to a support group; or seeing a therapist.
  3. Familiarize yourself with signs and indicators of mental health issues. Read the ICF checklists, “Referring a Client to Therapy: A Set of Guidelines” and “Top Ten Indicators to Refer a Client to a Mental Health Professional”
  4. Seek consultation with your Mentor Coach, coaching supervisor or other helping professional who has in-depth understanding in this area when you have questions or are uncertain about a client’s situation.
  5. Have a plan in place for emergency situations.
  6. When a referral to therapy or medical assessment is indicated, present the referral to the client in a positive way.

I encourage all coaches to become familiar with these concepts and tools so you will be prepared for that moment when you are most needed by your client.