What Makes Someone an Expert in Mental Health Coaching?

Learn the difference between a mental health coach and other therapists — and whether a mental health coach might be right for you.

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woman going to a coaching professional
Mental health coaches can help people manage emotions, challenge negative thinking patterns, improve relationship skills, and reduce stress and anxiety.iStock

You know that coaches can play an important role in winning a football game, training for a marathon, or even becoming more productive at work. But is there a role for coaches in mental health care?

Yes, says Wendy Nickerson, PhD, a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology at Calsouthern University in Arizona.

“With mental health coaching, patients can receive evidence-based care immediately, and care that’s more affordable too,” she says.

Dr. Nickerson is also the founder of the Nickerson Institute of Integrative Health Training, which provides mental health coaching certification that’s accredited by U.S. and Canadian regulatory bodies.

Mental health coaches can’t do everything that licensed psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists can do, but given the growing shortage of mental health care providers, coaches may help fill a growing need in the mental health care continuum.

Waiting lists to see a mental health practitioner are at an all-time high. After surveying its 26,400 members in October 2021, the American Psychological Association (APA) found a surge in demand for appointments and new referrals.

Overall, the APA found that its workforce had no capacity for new patients, while 68 percent said their waiting lists had grown longer than they were in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, a February 2022 report from the?Association of Behavioral Healthcare, which zeroed in on outpatient clinics across Massachusetts, found that the wait time for an initial mental health assessment by a licensed clinician topped two months. The report suggested that a diminishing workforce was to blame.

In a report (PDF) published in 2018, University of California researchers warned of this type of mental health care shortage, predicting then that California would have 30 percent fewer therapists than needed to meet demand by 2028.

From coast to coast, the United States is grappling with a shortage of mental health services to help Americans in need.

So, if you’re thinking about seeking mental health coaching to improve areas of your life, here’s everything you need to know to get started.

What Is a Mental Health Coach and What Do They Do?

Mental health coaches help their patients develop a greater awareness of themselves and learn effective tools to better manage the challenges in their lives, according to?Shane O’Neil-Hart, LCSW, a senior clinical manager of the mental health coaching program at Lyra Health in San Fransisco, which provides online mental health care, including coaching, medication management, and blended care therapy.

“Coaches help clients manage emotions, challenge negative thinking patterns, improve relationship skills, and reduce stress and anxiety — all of which bolsters mental health,” O’Neil-Hart says.

They’ll work with you to elevate your mood, challenge self-limiting beliefs, and teach you about the importance of self-love and acceptance, says?Melissa Segreto, a registered mental health coach in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

“Just like a therapist, a mental health coach is somebody who is listening to you and acting as your support system — and providing you with insight on what’s going on below the surface,” she says.

Coaches will typically do the following things to help patients zero in on their goals:

  • Ask Questions About What You Want Out of Life Coaches ask the kinds of questions that help clients see themselves in new ways and open up new avenues of transformation and personal growth. They may challenge their clients to envision where they want to be in the next five years, for example, and help them work toward their goals, says Segreto.
  • Introduce Coping Strategies and Skills Calming your breathing, practicing mindfulness, and trying emotional freedom technique or subconscious release technique are just some of the strategies your mental health coach may teach you to help you cope with the challenges you’re facing, Segreto says.
  • Help Clients Design Their Life Path and Encourage Behavior Change O’Neil-Hart says coaches work with you regularly, holding you accountable for putting the tactics you learn into practice. They may task you with homework after each session, such as providing journaling prompts or testing out a new breathing technique the next time you’re overwhelmed, then ask you about your progress.

What’s the Difference Between a Mental Health Coach and Other Therapists?

Mental health coaches are distinct from the other categories of mental health professionals for a few key reasons, including:

  • They cannot diagnose mental health disorders. While psychologists, psychiatrists, and other types of therapists are trained and equipped to diagnose mental health conditions, coaches cannot do this. If you need an assessment and diagnosis, coaches are not your best bet.
  • They cannot prescribe medication. Per Nickerson, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners can prescribe medication for mental health, alongside therapy, which distinguishes them from several other types of mental health professional (including mental health coaches).
  • They don’t discuss the past, instead focusing on your present and future. While psychologists may home in on your childhood or developmental years, mental health coaches steer away from the past and emphasize discussions about your goals for the future, the kind of person you want to be, and where you want your life to go, Segreto says.
  • They don’t specialize in treating complex clinical problems. Nickerson notes that if you are dealing with severe mental health issues, including depression, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, or trauma from abuse, you should see someone with more advanced mental healthcare training, such as a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, or another counselor with more expertise.

Mental health coaches are, however, trained about when to refer clients to a psychiatrist or psychologist if that person’s needs are beyond their expertise and training — and they’re taught about suicide prevention, Nickerson says.

Lyra Health, for example, provides its coaches with ongoing consultation with licensed psychologists to answer questions, prepare referrals or build up extra resources, adding another layer of security to ensure that patients are getting the most appropriate form of care, according to O’Neil-Hart. If patients need more specific care, or if they prefer to work with a therapist, Lyra will help with the transition, connecting them with a therapist.

Is a Mental Health Coach Right for Me?

Nickerson says mental health coaches are a great first line of defense to help Americans struggling with mild mental health concerns, or as a stopgap while they wait for an appointment with a clinician for assessment and diagnosis.

She says that some clients continue seeing both a mental health coach and a psychiatrist or psychologist, depending on their needs.

O’Neil-Hart says that some good reasons to seek out mental health coaching before or in place of other therapy include the following situations:

  • The mental and emotional health challenges you’re facing are on the milder end of the spectrum.
  • You prefer a goal-oriented approach that focuses on personal growth and development.
  • You want to improve your stress management or work-life balance.
  • You want help with clarifying your values, goals, or life purpose.
  • You’re interested in learning practical, actionable ways to address your personal and professional challenges.
  • You’re willing to do homework, including self-assessments, reading, journaling, or meditating, to help you get to know yourself better and get comfortable in your own skin.

He says mental health coaching can help with a wide range of mild to moderate symptoms, including:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Perfectionism
  • Burnout
  • Indecisiveness
  • Feeling stuck in life
  • Dealing with the end of a relationship
  • Interpersonal problems
  • Life transitions
  • Dealing with difficult emotions, such as anger

But don’t feel limited by this list. Segreto notes that everyone can benefit from mental health coaching to help them gain insight into themselves and where they’d like their lives to go.

“This work is for everybody in their day-to-day life. It’s about having the tools to build resilience in your life so you can navigate everything life throws at you,” she says.

What Credentials Should Mental Health Coaches Have?

It’s important to note that while other therapists must be licensed or registered in the state they practice in, mental health coaching is an unregulated field. That means anyone can call themselves a mental health coach and the onus is on you to check on their training, experience, and legitimacy, Nickerson says.

When you’re looking for a mental health coach, check that they’re registered, she notes. That means your coach has completed training from an organization that is approved by certain bodies, such as the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, the?Health Coach Alliance, or the International Coaching Federation?(ICF).

There are no prerequisites for mental health coaching, although most people who sign up for Nickerson’s training typically have an undergraduate degree as a baseline, she says.

O’Neil-Hart says Lyra Health conducts rigorous vetting, credentialing, and training of its mental health coaches. Candidates must have graduated from a program accredited by the ICF, and once they’re hired, they must complete a four-month orientation program overseen by a team of psychologists.

You can also check how long your mental health coach has been practicing, what symptoms they specialize in addressing, and what tactics they are trained in teaching.