Richard's Story

Richard Martin
08th May 2017

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Richard's Story

In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, Mastered student Richard Martin shares his experiences with Mental Health and Coaching. 

It’s a golden rule that coaching requires the coachee to be mentally well.  I know this because I am just embarking on the Mastered adventure and am diligently ploughing through my reading list.  As early as page 5 of Business Coaching Anne Scoular remarks that “Coaching needs not only the coach but also the coachee to be sane”.  A few pages on in her first chapter Anne distinguishes coaching from counselling with the observation “the clients of a coach are presumed to be well, the clients of a counsellor – or therapist, or clinical psychologist, or psychiatrist – are not”.  As with so many things, when you read it first, perhaps in the superficial comfort of black and white, it makes perfect sense and seems sufficiently clear and straightforward.  But then you think about what it means (or perhaps the questions it raises) in practice…

The fact that I am just embarking on the Mastered programme is a source of great excitement of course.  It is also a source of some bemusement to me when one looks at the CPD programme for 2017 to see my name down to deliver a Masterclass in September. The explanation, perhaps, lies in what follows, which I hope is interesting in itself but which I hope also will provoke some thought and debate which we can explore further in that Masterclass.

In early 2011 I was 40, married with three healthy kids, aged 13, 10 and 8.  We lived in a big grown up house in Wimbledon and had recently bought a rural farmhouse retreat in the Charente.  We had a dog, a cat, threw great parties and found time to help out in the community.  I was a partner in a city law firm, running the large employment law team, sitting on the management committee, with every expectation that my next role would be running the place.  I had clients who sought me out for advice, accolades in the legal directories, and a great team around me who leaned on me for support and guidance.  I was truly blessed and seemed to have it made. 

To anyone looking in from the outside I was secure, confident, and unquestionably “sane”.  The view from the inside was pretty much the same, notwithstanding the good helping of the insecurities (I think) we all share.

By the June of that year I was a terrified wreck.  I was afraid to venture far from the comparative safety of my sofa.  The door bell or phone ringing would send me to the floor in tears of terror.  I could not focus for any length of time, or retain information for more than a few minutes.  Any question put to me sent me into panic.  The world, and every interaction with it, was a source of insurmountable fear.  And I was experiencing that world as though through thick clouded glass, my senses all numbed, as if my brain was powering down as a form of self protection.  

So what happened?  On one, superficial, level, while driving back from a family holiday over the May half term, and apparently out of the blue, I suffered a catastrophic panic attack which mentally immobilised me.  But, as my wife, Lucy, observed, “A breakdown is not the beginning of mental illness, it’s the publication of it.  It’s the volcano that has been rumbling away for years exploding with boiling lava and destroying everything in its path.  People built their houses on its slopes, suspecting (perhaps) what it was, but hoping it would not erupt.”

At the start of 2011, with my next role in mind, my firm had suggested I see a coach.  I had never had a coach before, had little knowledge really of what coaching meant, but was flattered by the investment in me, and dutiful to go along with what those around me suggested.  The initial suggestion was for a programme of six sessions after which, I guess, the idea would have been that we review how things were going before deciding whether to continue.  I made it through session five but never got as far as the sixth.  I have little detailed memory of the individual sessions – it was several years ago and, in addition, my breakdown has played havoc with my memory of large parts of that period.  What I do remember is an exploration over the months of me, my family history, my motivations and ambitions and, with all of that, a lot of emotion, tears, as I reflected on things to which I had paid little attention previously. 

In a sense the culmination came when my coach (I am guessing in that fifth session) sat back and said words to the effect of “I think I have a sense of you Richard.  I absolutely understand why the firm wants you to perform your next role.  What I don’t have a sense of is what you want.”  And in a sense, that was it.  This apparently innocuous remark cast blinding light, not on the fact that I did not necessarily know what I wanted, but on the fact that I had never thought about it, never paused to consider that “what I wanted” was something that could exist and, even, could matter.  Doing “stuff” because it was what others wanted was not enough.  I (or we) had built a massive great big construct of a life on foundations that in an instant seemed to me to have been exposed as fatally flawed.  If “what I wanted” mattered then what the hell was I doing all this for?  Without the foundations, a building will collapse quite quickly.

I do not suggest for a moment that my illness was the result of coaching.  In addition, there was no reason for my coach or anyone else to have formed the view that I was not well enough for coaching when it began.  On any analysis, however, I was not well enough, “sane” enough to use Anne’s words, for coaching (or much else) by June that year.  I firmly believe that my breakdown would have happened with or without the coaching.  At some stage those foundations would have failed.  What I wonder about is whether the coaching might have acted as a catalyst.  At the very least the two coincided, which itself feels worthy of exploration.

The purpose of all this is to throw out some thoughts which I hope we can explore further in the Masterclass in September.

Firstly, just what do we mean by “sane” or “well” and how do we assess that?  Mental health is a spectrum.  We have probably all seen the statistics about mental illness – one in six of the adult population suffering from diagnosable mental illness at any one time, one in four in any given year.  That is mental illness, and, of course, the rate is worryingly high and is obscenely out of kilter with our understanding of the subject and the investment we make into its treatment and care.  But we all have a state of mental health, which will fluctuate all the time.  The relevant statistic is one in one.

At one end of our spectrum we have positive mental health where we are feeling positive and strong, inspired, engaged, capable, confident etc.  At the other end is severe mental illness and in between the two is where we all exist for most of the time.  The World Health Organisation defines mental health as being “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.  When one looks at a range of different mental illnesses or mental health problems, often the focus is on that same question, the ability to cope.  It is often a fine line across which many people will fluctuate at different times of their lives.

This theme is born out by the idea of two different models of mental health – the medical and the social.  The medical model tends to focus on whether someone has a diagnosable mental illness while the social one is concerned with that ability to cope.  There will be many people living with serious mental illnesses who for much of the time are perfectly able to cope, just as there will be many people without mental illness (and certainly without a diagnosis) who (at times at least) cannot.  What does “sane” mean in that context? 

Problems with mental health, if left unchecked, and if they persist, may preface, or lead to, a mental illness.  What are the signs we need to be looking out for in coachees that this is happening, and at what point does someone become not sane enough to be coached?  What do we, as coaches, do in that situation?  There is the issue of what is best in that situation for the coachee – what help does s/he need to access and are we equipped to sign post people to that and to have the necessary conversation with the coachee?  In addition, however, what does our initial contracting allow (or require) us to do vis a vis the employer who will often/normally be a third party to that contract?

And then there is the nature of coaching itself.  What brings someone to coaching?  My (professedly uninformed) understanding would be that on some level something is not right, that there is a desire for change.  That change may seem, and may be, relatively “superficial”, by which I mean something that does not involve a deep analysis of an individual’s psyche, the way they see/experience and respond to the world, or that even if it does, that the coachee is able to participate in that analysis without causing undue challenge to their wider ability to cope.  But that will not always (ever?) be clear at the outset.  And how easy is it always to differentiate the issues that take someone to coaching from those that might take someone to counselling?  Is it just their state of “sanity” and, if so, again, what does that mean and how do we assess it?

When, for example, we explore Realities as part of a GROW exercise, those realities, our perceptions of them, will be relative and will be based upon our wider perception of the world, our unconscious thinking and assumptions.  The exploration of those in a coaching context may be quite similar to the exploration undertaken by, for example, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist.  

I suspect that for most coaching engagements, both at the outset and during the entire course of the relationship, none of this is a concern – the coachee is fit and able to participate in the process without concerns as to their state of mental health ever arising.  The challenge may lie “in the margins”, but, as anyone familiar with document formatting will know, margins are not absolute.  We need to have an eye on them, and they are probably larger than we think and not within our control.  There will be a large body of people, of clients, who are “sane” on any reasonable understanding of that word.  But that term is relative and a person’s position on the spectrum of “sanity” will vary, and some of that variation may well be caused by the challenges experienced in a coaching relationship. 

I am conscious that I have, quite deliberately, raised more questions than answers.  That is partly because I am a novice and not a master and so would not claim to have them, and partly because I suspect that black and white answers do not exist.  I hope the Masterclass will be a place to explore the questions and perhaps point us towards how we can find answers when we find ourselves in the margins.  I look forward to that Masterclass (with a large degree of accompanying trepidation).  If there are issues surrounding this area that anyone would like to raise in advance, whether to inform the content or otherwise, I would be delighted to hear from you.

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