Coaching and Mental Health: A Personal Perspective

Author : SULU FONTANA

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16th November 2018

You might have met me in the classroom; or sat next to me at a lecture; who knows, maybe you even coached me at some point. I’m a qualified life coach. I am also 1 in 4 people who have struggled with mental health.

Back then, you didn’t know. And I didn’t either.

In February this year, I received my diploma and started working enthusiastically towards setting up my practice. In March, unexpectedly, at the peak of momentum, I had an emotional breakdown.

Medically, a crisis is defined as a time when your mental health is severely distressed. Whilst valid, this definition is in my opinion fairly restricted; I resonate more with a psychologically minded view of life crises as a necessary summons to expansion, towards wholeness and authenticity. In the words of Jungian scholar Hollis:

 

“The invitation of a crisis is to sift through to discern what’s important, to find what developmental task may be required. Usually, they make it painfully evident that the previous worldview or attitudes of consciousness are inadequate”

It is in this light that I consider a crisis as an astounding, though challenging, self-development opportunity. It is also in this light that I feel coaching can become incredibly instrumental – to the discernment process, to challenge old worldviews, and to create new ones.

I’m very conscious of professional boundaries and ethical responsibility and I don’t advocate coaching as a substitute for therapy or medical care. Receiving appropriate, specialised treatment is paramount; coaching being unregulated indeed raises further precautions.

What I would like to do, though, is share my personal experience of how coaching contributed to emotional healing and change; and also to initiate a conversation aimed at exploring the complementary potential for coaching within the context of mental health services and, in a broader sense, of life crises and reinvention.

Crises can show up unexpectedly, yet some say they will only present once you’re strong enough to handle them. As I slowed down to look after myself, I came to appreciate how coaching has helped me immensely, not only by building resilience and inner strength but also by endowing me with a kit of resources on which I could draw during challenging times.

My training offered me the ability to self-coach; tools to make sense of my feelings and to challenge racing thoughts; the capacity to identify my needs and to voice them effectively to those around me through non-violent communication.

Thanks to coaching, I was able to let go of attachment to ideas of what ‘should’ be and to accept each moment as it was. On the toughest days, I’d give myself permission to feel what I was feeling, to focus on being, here and now, in mindful awareness; to not fight the experience, but to observe it; to sit through the discomfort and treat any emotion, more or less pleasant, as a messenger with information I could pay heed to and use.

Even more, coaching gifted me the presence of peers-turned-lifelong-friends who’d hold space for me during emotional turmoil; a supportive, understanding community where vulnerability is a strength and self-acceptance a reasonable goal; a community that does not shy away from talking about mental health, which is why I’m writing this now.

As I found myself navigating mental health services first hand, I also appreciated with fresh eyes how fundamental coaching skills could have enriched them: genuine rapport; unconditional positive regard; asking simple questions rather than suggesting solutions, or trying to fix; active listening, mirroring, and validating to truly hear the other, with empathy, no matter how confusing or seemingly illogical their experience might sound.

How could these intrinsic elements of a safe coaching space be brought into play? How could we contribute, through coaching, to create a more integrative, rounded approach to care and healing?

Coaching rests on the principle that a client has agency, resources and potential that can be drawn on towards the achievement of positive, realistic, future-oriented goals. Once appropriate medical/therapeutic care is in place, along with the necessary precautions, could coaching offer support and resources at a time when one wonders “where to go from here”? And by engaging individual capabilities, could it improve ownership of the transition process and create the opportunity for a more empowered experience?

I sincerely pondered how vocal to be about my story; stigma is painfully real, and talking about mental health challenges can feel daunting. As a coach, I questioned the impact of self-disclosure. But life isn’t perfect, coaches are human, and humans don’t have it all together all the time.

Personally, I find my experience has positively affected my coaching; it has enriched my perspective; I feel a lot more grounded and in touch with my intuition now; I’m clearer about my purpose and I’ve even discovered, surprisingly, that I might have a niche after all. If I allowed the fear of stigma to silence me, I’d be going against all that I believe in. So I choose to be vulnerable, to use my voice to raise awareness and to invite us coaches to continue the conversation about mental health, exploring with curiosity the role we might play in this discourse.

www.sulufontana.com/

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