An expert explains how to choose between a therapist or a life coach

There's a "wild west" situation going on.

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By Sarah Sloat
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Life coaching emerged as a concept in the 1940s and began to boom in popularity in the 1980s. Today the field is an immensely expansive one, filled with a range of services, techniques, and credibility. The question is: How do you know what type of life coaching is right for you? And how do you know if what you actually need is therapy?

If you look for a life coach online, you could find a group of individuals including, but not limited to, social media influencers, people accredited by the International Coach Federation, and psychotherapists who also work as coaches. Dr. Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist, belongs to the latter group.

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At her clinical psychology practice, she helps people with a wide range of mental health problems. Meanwhile, as a Psychological Health & Safety Leadership Coach, she helps people harness, build, and optimize their strengths as leaders. She explained to me that while both psychotherapists and coaches “can help clients achieve goals, build skills, increase confidence, respond to challenging situations effectively, and take control of their lives,” they often go about doing that in different ways.

In general, a psychotherapist will help people who have mental health problems become healthier by talking with them. Different types of psychotherapists have different approaches. For example, cognitive behavior therapists aid clients by teaching them new ways of thinking and acting. Meanwhile, coaches typically have experience in a particular area and offer training and guidance as a means to help their clients achieve specific goals. While “life coach” is a general phrase, these individuals could be, for example, a health coach or a leadership coach.

What unites these professions is the fact that both have clients who want change, and both professions say their services have the potential to help make that change happen. But they are not interchangeable services. In therapy, the focus is often on interpersonal health. Badali explains that if you have a mental health problem, like a level of anxiety that’s interfering with your daily life, then you would benefit from seeking help from a mental health care professional trained in an evidence-based treatment.

But if what you want is help identifying what your professional potential is, and then achieving it, a life coach could be a better choice.

“If you are so anxious that you are experiencing a lot of distress or are having trouble with daily activities, then I recommend seeking help from a qualified mental health professional after you have ruled out other issues with your medical doctor,” Badali says. “If you are doing okay in life but would really like to excel or have particular goals you would like to achieve, then a life coach could be very helpful.”

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Seek help from a mental health professional if you're experiencing a lot of anxiety.

And while the topic is somewhat understudied, some research does show that working with a life coach can create positive effects. In a 2003 study that evaluated a small sample size of 20 participants, completion of a life coaching program was linked to higher levels of personal insight. However, levels of self-reflection also decreased after the program was over. In a 2007 study, researchers analyzed a group of 63 people who underwent a 10-week program, either with professional or “peer” life coaches. Researchers determined that, compared to having a peer coach, coachees of pros demonstrated “greater goal commitment and progression” and a better sense of well-being.

That study touches on a problem with life coaching — unlike a psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed clinical social worker, a life coach does not have to have a specific license to work with clients. There are a handful of accreditation programs that offer training and certification, but these are still not required before a person starts selling their life coach services.

“If you go see a psychologist or psychiatrist, they have met a certain standard of training and they are responsible for a standard of practice,” Badali explains. “If you see a coach — you don’t have this same protection.”

She points out that this definitely doesn’t mean that coaching is bad — but it is something to think about. She is concerned, however, that a lack of regulation around coaching, combined with the ease and cost of creating a professional-looking website selling coaching services, has contributed to a “wild west situation.” Lately, Badali has seen more advertisements for life coaches and for becoming a life coach than she has at any other point in her career — but the general public’s understanding of their services has remained murky.

For example, she’s seen clients who came to her with their anxiety problems after a life coach couldn’t help them.

“In most instances, they started out with a life coach because the initial hour rates and wait times were lower than that of mental health professions,” Badali says. “This does not mean that coaching does not have its place, or that there are not some great coaches out there.”

Since “life” is a pretty big area to be an expert in, she recommends that people interested in coaching should look for coaches who focus on a specific area. If you’re unsure, a good place to start is asking your family doctor or general practitioner what they would recommend. There’s space for both therapists and life coaches — but what you’re going to get is not going to be the same.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.