By Dr Suzy Green MAPS, Clinical and coaching psychologist, Private practice, Sydney
‘Get a life’ is a common catch-cry of those in the life coaching industry. Given the high rates of depression in the community, it seems there are many people who need more than just ‘a life’ and require evidence-based psychological treatment from a mental health professional. Furthermore, there has been the recent recognition of individuals identified as ‘languishing’; these individuals are not clinically depressed, but don’t have sufficiently high levels of wellbeing to fit criteria for mental health (Keyes & Haidt, 2003). Unfortunately, help sought for psychological distress is often not from psychologists but from the many and varied non-stigmatised ‘helpers’ that exist in our communities, including the life coach.
There are various definitions of life coaching at this time that generally relate to the facilitation of goal attainment, personal growth and wellbeing in one’s personal life. The life coaching industry is currently not regulated and anyone may identify themselves as a life coach. In order to provide differentiation to the public, it may be useful for psychologists to utilise the term ‘evidence-based life coaching’. Evidence-based life coaching may be defined as an applied positive psychology, which utilises empirically validated research primarily from (but not limited to) the fields of psychology and adult education for the enhancement of goal attainment, personal growth and wellbeing. Life coaching is differentiated from business, executive and workplace coaching in that it usually occurs outside the corporate environment and is focused on the individual’s whole of life.Who currently provides life coaching services?
The promotion and practice of life coaching by non-psychologists has grown substantially in the last few years. Many life coach training schools have emerged providing certificates and more recently a diploma in life coaching. There are usually no entry restrictions to such courses.
Despite the public interest in life coaching, psychologists have been slow to present themselves as possessing unique skills in life coaching. The demand for life coaches has typically been met by individuals who don’t have the breadth and depth of training inherent in the psychologist’s education. Many of the life coach training schools offer proprietary coaching models and methods, and charge significant fees for both training and use of the training materials for the ongoing development of their practice.
Not surprisingly, many psychologists have raised concerns regarding the practice of life coaching, particularly regarding the suitability and qualifications of those delivering coaching services. If individuals who seek life coaching have mental health problems there is a danger they may not be receiving appropriate treatment provided by a trained mental health clinician.
I am writing this article as both a researcher and practitioner of clinical and coaching psychology. In training as a clinical psychologist, my doctoral research investigated the effectiveness of ‘evidence-based life coaching’ (Green, Oades & Grant, 2006).
It was asked, and continues to be asked, “What’s the relevance of life coaching within the realms of a traditional clinical psychology training program?”. The response to this question is to clarify that the role of the clinical psychologist extends beyond the realms of treating the mentally unwell, and includes both mental health prevention and promotion. The argument for this, which is also one supported by the positive psychology movement, is that if individuals’ levels of positive emotions and psychological wellbeing can be enhanced, then this may build resilience and help protect against mental illness in the future (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
Linley and Joseph (2006) have also highlighted the role of the practitioner from a positive psychological perspective. They suggest psychological practice isn’t only about alleviating distress, treating illness and repairing weakness, but also facilitating wellbeing, promoting health and building strengths.
From an empirical perspective, my doctoral research investigated participation in a ten-week evidence-based (cognitive-behavioural, solution-focused) group life coaching
program. The results found that participation in the program was associated with statistically significant increases in both subjective and psychological wellbeing, hope and goal striving. Many of these increases were maintained up to thirty weeks later.
Following on from this, a further study was conducted using a similar evidence-based life coaching program (Green, Grant & Rynsaardt, 2007) for Year 11 senior high school students at a private girls’ high school in Sydney. Similar results were identified with participation in the evidence-based life coaching program. Results indicated that the program was associated with significant increases in cognitive hardiness (a measure of resilience) and hope. These positive outcomes have now led to another study, currently in progress, on evidence-based workplace coaching for teachers at the same school.
Whilst these results are encouraging, there was one important finding from the initial research that requires highlighting and communicating to both our own profession and the community. In the initial screening procedure for a ‘normal, non-clinical’ sample we found that 52 per cent of potential participants reported significant levels of psychological distress on the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI). Spence & Grant (2004) conducted a similar study, also screening potential participants for psychological distress, and found that 26 per cent met criteria on the BSI. These results indicate, as suggested earlier, that many people may be seeking help via non-stigmatised methods.
Additionally, since completion of my clinical training, my experience in private practice has been that many people seeking life coaching meet criteria for a DSM-IV diagnosis. I have had presenting clients that meet clinical criteria for depression (unipolar and bipolar), many of the anxiety disorders (including OCD) and also two clients who met criteria for a delusional disorder (erotomania) and schizophreniform disorder (not current, but several past psychiatric hospitalisations), all wanting to ‘get a life’. Fortunately, as a clinical psychologist, I am equipped to work with most clients who present for help, including clinical and non-clinical clients. However, as many of those providing life coaching services at this time are non-psychologists, this is an alarming issue that has not yet been thoroughly investigated or addressed. I would also suggest that it is a call to our profession to claim a service that we are well qualified to provide.
Whilst the issues raised in this article are serious and require attention, it is my personal hope that rather than continuing to view this entirely as a problem, that we ourselves take a solutionfocused approach and view this as an opportunity to extend our services into the community and make a difference where we are well qualified to do so.
I have taught evidence-based coaching to psychologists over the past four years and it has been encouraging to see growing interest within my profession. Many psychologists have wanted to expand their own practices to include coaching as a service, often claiming they have felt ‘burnt out’ after years of therapy practice. More often that not, psychologists have stated that they themselves have benefited, in as much as they applied the concepts to their own lives, reviewing their values and vision and identifying actions they could take to create a fulfilling life.
Psychologists may realise the benefits of incorporating life coaching programs into their practices particularly for individuals who present with ‘problems in living’ or as Egan (1998) refers to as ‘unused opportunities’. These are individuals without a DSM-IV diagnosis and who are not typically ‘dogged’ by problems but are not as effective as they would prefer to be. Psychologists utilising an evidence-based coaching framework may help these clients move towards their ‘preferred scenario’.
Psychologists as experts in behavioural change are rigorously trained in areas such as personality theory, developmental and social psychology, which are all relevant to ‘normal, nonclinical’ clients who are seeking to make changes or enhance their psychological wellbeing. Additionally, there are many evidence-based psychological theories and techniques (e.g., the Transtheoretical Model of Change, cognitive-behavioural therapy/ coaching, and solution-focused techniques) that are relevant and applicable in an evidence-based life coaching program.
Destigmatising psychology is one of the greatest challenges for our profession if we’re to make a real difference in terms of mental health. There are a growing number of people who are attracted to wider models of health maintenance and less medical style interventions (Eisenberg et al, 1998). Evidence-based life coaching, with its lack of stigma, would meet this need and as such could be used as a mental health prevention and promotion intervention aimed at enhancing psychological wellbeing and preventing
mental illness. It may also potentially achieve savings in mental health costs.
I hope this article will stimulate psychologists to consider the potential use of life coaching, both in a private practice setting and perhaps also as a community mental health intervention. Evidence-based life coaching may be used as a mental health promotion intervention for individuals who wish to make changes in their lives and enhance their positive psychological functioning.