Mental Health: Coaching the 1 in 4 from Recovery to Discovery

by Gwynneth Witherow

“Clients may take longer to identify a goal, may never have been asked to think about their strengths, or may find it difficult to make a commitment.”

Coaching is a proven intervention to help move clients towards their goals. But what if from a challenging social background?  What if they never believed they had had strengths? Gwynneth Witherow discuss her experience as a Mental Health and Wellbeing Coach in Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland 1in4[1] people will face a Mental Health challenge in any given year and this statistic increases in areas of poverty and social deprivation[2]. It is especially so in those areas affected by “the Troubles[3]”, in remote rural areas, inner city areas and in newer immigrant populations. Added to the groups who live with a formal Mental Health diagnosis are those who live with a perceived self-defined issue around their own Wellbeing.

It is easy then to see why Mental Health & Wellbeing Coaching offers a real and cost-effective addition to the suite of Talking Therapies already available to clients through Private, Statutory and Third Sector providers.

Most people tend to think of Coaching as an “Executive” luxury, only available to those who head-up large corporations, the leaders and decision makers who face huge industry pressures. It is seen as performance based, tied into the status and fit of the individual within the company.

However, the reality is that, wherever we are in our lives, no matter how we use our time or how good our relationships might be, whether we work or we don’t, whether we the CEO or the office Junior, we all face changes and challenges and not all of them are welcome. We can all need support to move forward.

For the 1 in 4 people living with a mental health issue, or those whose wellbeing is poor, the changes and challenges are greater. They may have difficulty recognising the need for change, may not have the motivation or may simply (but overwhelmingly) have lost hope.  Many of my clients come to the sessions as part of a treatment regime and are at the pre- thinking stage where they know that things are not right for them but can’t process what is making it so or what is needed to improve their life experience. They may have lived years with poor self-esteem, with the serious effects of medication, with the stigma attached to their diagnosis and with the lack of appropriate services.

We all know, or think we know, what coaching is.  Mental Health and Wellbeing Coaching brings an innovative and effective focus for those with mental health and wellbeing challenges. The coaching skills and knowledge are enhanced by experience in the mental health field that brings insight and empathy to a session.

My clients benefit from my Positive Psychology approach, my coaching skills and from the years of knowledge and experience built up in the mental health field. I understand how their diagnosis or challenge can affect them and their ability to fully engage in the coaching sessions. I can empathise with the feeling of being “stuck”, understand the impact of medication, the challenges of poor self-belief and adapt approaches to meet their individual needs.

In return, I have the privilege of holding hope for clients when they can’t see it or feel it for themselves. I witness their happiness as they see the glimmer building and strengthening as things begin to change for them.

Coaching in this area is not without its challenges for both the Coach and Coachee. For the coach, patience is not only a virtue, but a necessity. Clients may take longer to identify a goal, may never have been asked to think about their strengths, or may find it difficult to make a commitment. Therefore, the pace of a session must always be the client’s.

For the client, being asked to envision a positive future may seem impossible, having the motivation to follow through on actions may seem too difficult and they may never have had anyone who believes that they are perfect in who they are.

In the end the patience will pay off though, allowing the client to lead on the pace, supporting them to discover what knowledge, skills and experience they have, championing they so that they believe too is hat will support them to move forward into the life they want and deserve.

I get to share the joy with a client when they move through their Recovery journey into their Discovery phase. I am honoured to be part of their “Aha” moments, where they realise that change is needed, that it’s possible and that they are the ones who will make it happen for themselves.

MindWise works to support those at risk of, and affected by, severe mental illness and mental health difficulties. Our support includes:

  • Lobbying and Campaigning to promote equality and respect for all.
  • Supporting and encouraging people to achieve their own goals and aspirations.
  • Promoting, recognising and supporting carers, families and friends.
  • Engaging with other agencies to develop first class services that represent value for money.
  • Holding recovery as core to all the services we provide and promoting the recovery ethos to others.
  • Developing the skills and knowledge required to manage personal mental health and the mental health of others.

The Advanced Diploma in Mental Health and Wellbeing was developed through a partnership between Kingstown College and Mindwise.

Gwynneth Witherow

Gwynneth Witherow has been involved in the mental health field for almost 15 years. She has been a practicing Mental Health & Wellbeing Coach since 2014, when she completed the original pioneering course of the same name. She works primarily with MindWise, a leading Mental Health Charity in Northern Ireland, where she coaches clients who have a  Mental Health or Wellbeing challenges. She is currently training to be a Coach Supervisor to support other Coaches starting out in this new field.


[1] Mental Health Foundation Fundamental facts 2016

[2] Joseph Rowntree Foundation Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland 2014

[3] The 2015 report, ‘Towards A Better Future: The Trans-generational Impact of the Troubles on Mental Health’ found that over 213,000 people in Northern Ireland are experiencing significant mental health problems as a result of the Troubles.