Training clients with a mental illness

October is Mental Health Month. Did you know that nearly half (45%) of all Australians will experience some kind of mental illness in their lifetime? Despite this, there is still a poor understanding of mental illness. Mental illness can have an impact on all areas of a person’s life. People with a mental illness often struggle to engage in their regular work, social and physical activities in the way they would when healthy. Mental illness includes anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and personality disorders.

The link between exercise and improved mental health is unquestioned. Research has shown that regular physical activity is associated with better mental health, emotional well-being and lower rates of mental disorders. Research on anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and exercise also shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help reduce symptoms and improve mood, with some studies suggesting that exercise is just as effective, if not more effective than pharmacological intervention in alleviating depressive symptoms.

As a PT, you may have a client who doesn’t disclose their condition, their condition is undiagnosed or they may keep it hidden from public view. If a client is open about their mental health and explain their history of anxiety or depression, it is vital that you treat them with the same care and respect as any other client, and maintain full client confidentiality. The tips below may provide some guidance in working with clients with a mental illness, but keep in mind no two mental health conditions are ever the same and what’s worked for one client may not work for another.

  • Try to provide sessions that give clients a feeling of accomplishment
  • Talk to them about how they’re feeling
  • Listen to what they say – they maynot be looking for advice, they may just want to talk
  • Show genuine empathy
  • Build a professional, warm and caring relationship

The jury is still out on what types of exercise are most effective in treating mental illness, but there is evidence to suggest that both aerobic and resistance training may be beneficial. What is important is that if there’s a form of exercise that your client enjoys, then set incremental goals and work towards small improvements in this area.

Keep in mind that you may not be the best person to counsel a client. As a PT, clients tend to want to talk to you about their various problems, which is fine as long as you stay within the boundaries of your job title. This is especially pertinent if a depressed client is not under the care of a psychologist or other medical professional. It is good practice, and good care for a client, if you are able to refer them to a psychologist. Seeing a psychologist can significantly help a client understand their situation and thought patterns.

Physical Activity Australia is not a mental health organisation. If you have concerns about yourself or someone you know, please contact Lifeline or beyondblue.

ESSA / Exercise Right
Australian Fitness Network
ABC Health and Wellbeing