When should a coach refer a client to a therapist?

Coaching is a powerful process, but it’s not the answer to all problems. Sometimes, a coaching client should be referred to a different specialist, such as a therapist or counselor. In fact, failing to do so is a clear ethical violation for a coach.

Thankfully, ICF has developed a helpful guide for when a referral to a therapist or other professional is recommended or required. Below is the quick overview, and you can download the full text of a white paper on this topic here.

WHEN AND HOW TO REFER A CLIENT TO THERAPY OR OTHER HELPING PROFESSIONALS* 

WHY

  • Coach’s ethical responsibility
  • Psychotherapy is outside  coaching scope of work
  • Intervention is important  to recovery 
  • Intervention may save a life

WHEN** 

  • Issue is outside your competency  and experience level 
  • Issue interferes with daily  functioning 
  • Issue is a barrier to making  progress in coaching 
  • Issue is psychological in  nature and deals with deep seated emotions

HOW 

  • Be direct and calm 
  • Express concern and care
  • Point out specific behaviors
  • Listen closely 
  • Encourage client to seek help
  • Normalize therapy 
  • Make referral 

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS 

  • Marked changes in mood such as irritability, anger, anxiety, or sadness 
  • Decline in performance at work or school
  • Withdrawal from social relationships and activities
  • Changes in weight and appearance, including  negligence of personal hygiene 
  • Disturbances in sleep (either oversleeping or  difficulty falling or staying asleep) 
  • Expresses hopelessness or suicidal thoughts 

Common issues that warrant a referral to therapy include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, post traumatic stress, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and thought disorders.

EMERGENCY SITUATIONS 

If you believe someone may be in imminent danger  of self-harm or hurting another person:  

  • Call your local emergency number 
  • Stay with person until help arrives 
  • Ask what means they have that may cause harm
  • Listen, but do not judge, argue, threaten, or yell 

If you think someone is considering suicide, get help  from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline.  

Contact information for crisis centers:  

Befrienders Worldwide – https://www.befrienders.org/ 

International Association for Suicide Prevention – https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres

International Suicide Prevention Wiki – http://suicideprevention.wikia.com/wiki/International_

* Other helping professionals include a support group, a mentor, a specialist coach, or a spiritual representative.  See “Referring a Client to Therapy: A Set of Guidelines” for more details on indicators and the referral process. 

** Keep in mind that mental health is on a spectrum, so watch for duration, frequency, and intensity of symptoms. Consider consulting a supervisor or a mental health professional when you are uncertain. 

Sources: American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. American Psychological Association. (2017). Retrieved from www.apa.org. Qualitative research conducted by ICF. 

Cite as: Hullinger, A. M. and DiGirolamo, J. A. (2018). Referring a client to therapy: A set of guidelines. Retrieved from Internation al Coaching Federation website: https://coachingfederation.org/app/uploads/2018/05/Whitepaper-Client-Referral.pdf.

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Magda Walczak

Magda

Magda Walczak is CEO of Coacharya and author of Saylor's tale, a children's book. She's passionate about animal rights, women's equity and living sustainably.

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