When to refer a Coachee or Mentee for Professional Counselling or Therapy

Suggesting to someone else that they need counselling takes courage. As a coach or mentor, you will in most cases not be a qualified therapist – and even if you were, there are potential conflicts of role between mentoring/coaching and therapy. The two key questions here are:

  • How can you tell if the other person needs therapeutic support?
  • How can you broach the subject without damaging the mentoring/coaching relationship?

What to watch out for:
Signs that the person will benefit from therapy include:

  • When they have a constant depressed mood (as opposed to a temporary “down” related to a specific setback)
  • If they have problems of alcohol or drug abuse
  • If they are long-term lonely
  • If they have difficulty setting or achieving goals, or simply concentrating on the task in hand
  • If they have been getting uncharacteristic negative feedback from work colleagues
  • If they are constantly angry or show other signs of not being able to control their emotions
  • If they exhibit abnormally high levels of anxiety that affect their performance
  • Sexual dysfunction (yes, it does occasionally come up in the intimacy of disclosure within mentoring/coaching)
  • When the mentee/coachee reveals a traumatic event (such as sexual abuse), which they have not been able to deal with (this may be some considerable time in the past); or, if it is a recent event, when they can’t stop thinking about it
  • When they show the same pattern of destructive or dysfunctional behaviour repeatedly. (For example, some people appear to be functioning well in a job role or relationship, then sabotage their efforts, as if they are afraid of success)
  • When the person can’t form relationships
  • Breakdown of relationships
  • Unexplained health problems, such as recurrent headaches or stomach problems that don’t appear to have a physical cause – for example, neck pain is a common symptom of distress
  • Frequent and severe mood swings
  • Frequent panic attacks
  • Disconnection from activities they used to enjoy at work or outside
  • Friends are concerned about them

This is by no means an exhaustive list!

How to broach the subject
The guiding principle here is that the mentee/coachee needs to feel safe both in admitting they need help and in seeking it. Telling them bluntly “You need help!” probably won’t achieve that. Instead, share the responsibility with them — “I am feeling that this situation needs more expertise than I have. What other sources of help have you considered?”

Express your concern – “I’m worried that this problem could get worse, if you don’t deal with it.” Point out that seeking help at the early stages of a problem is a sign of strength. Thank them for the trust they have placed in you by sharing the situation with you.

If they have fears about therapy, you can explain that the vast majority of people, who go to counselling, are normal, mentally healthy individuals, who want to learn some better coping mechanisms. For these people, counselling is essentially a more specialised, personalised form of consultancy – it just places more emphasis on our skills of managing emotions.

If they don’t want to know…
That’s their choice. Accept it, but make it clear you are willing to revisit the subject, if or when they wish. If you eventually think that they cannot be mentored/coached effectively until they do address the issue – which will only sometimes be the case — then be prepared to say so and suggest you suspend mentoring/coaching until they can take full advantage of it. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling guilty about not helping them enough; or worse, the trap of becoming an amateur psychologist.

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