PERSPECTIVE: Reflections of industry leaders

It’s in our power to reduce stigma and save lives

Initial consultations with clients and members provide an opportunity to unearth emotional motivations and transform lives, not just body fat percentages, believes movement coach Kylianne Farrell.

With mental illness affecting at least one in five people in Australia, I believe that fitness professionals are in a position to offer vital support to those in need. Yet, despite depression and anxiety being two of the six top chronic health issues in Australia, you’d be hard pressed to find a question about mental wellbeing in a training client’s pre-screening health questionnaire.

This is a missed opportunity to help reduce the stigma of mental illness. Starting this conversation can also help unearth the true motivation behind a client choosing to start training with you. As long as there is still a stigma, there is still a barrier to change – and as an industry we are unwittingly facilitating it by failing to create an opportunity for clients to disclose the illnesses they are living with, beyond the physical dysfunctions and injuries that we may be able to see.

Being diagnosed with mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it something you must battle alone: the fitness industry has the power to alter the perception of mental illness by ‘permitting’ clients to speak up about their struggles. By doing so we can coach them as human beings and not just human bodies, and get them help when red flags start showing up. We can help save lives.

When I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety in my late teens, the mental health clinician recommended that I start exercising in order to help my journey to recovery. It is the only thing that I remember from my appointment, as it sparked my curiosity about the connection between movement and mental wellbeing. And so I started to work out. At no point, however, was I asked about my mental health or the real reason I was engaging with the gym, PT or group fitness sessions. I was only asked what my physical goals were.

Movement is an incredibly powerful coping strategy when it comes to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, but it is often overshadowed by the focus on aesthetics. Why must we look better in order to feel better? Maybe if we moved to feel better we would view ourselves differently, increase our resilience, and boost our confidence and self-worth.

I have clients that have trained with me for years, despite not achieving their initially stated goals of losing significant amounts of weight or ‘toning up’. What they have achieved, however, is becoming pain-free and able to perform the things that they love doing most, from hiking and keeping up with their children, to paddle boarding and competing in triathlons. In these cases, most have struggled emotionally and mentally, and only over time has it become evident to them that their real motivation for training was to reduce chronic stress or to cope with anxiety or depression.

To best serve clients, it is vital that we get to the heart of goal setting. The physical goals are a mask for what is going on emotionally and mentally.

When struggling with depression and anxiety it is easy to become overwhelmed with daily challenges, to become stuck and unable to see a way forward. Movement unlocks our ability to get creative with problem solving, allowing the subconscious mind to see things from different perspectives and light a way forward. You can literally move your way to a solution. What a powerful strategy to empower your clients with. Enabling them to reconnect with self and others can start conversations, break down emotional barriers to change, unravel physical and mental pain and bring a sense of joy.

We are not the cure, but we are in an amazing position within our scope of practice to support someone on their journey and empower them with the tools to create changeW.

Start these hard conversations, find out what your client really needs, make referrals to clinicians, and build networks in the mental health industry, because together we can create great change in the mental and emotional wellbeing of clients.


Kylianne Farrell is a movement coach, counsellor, presenter and blogger. Founder of The Movement Room and the Move For Mental Health initiative, she combines movement coaching and counselling to deliver a powerful coping strategy for clients battling mental illness. themovementroom.com.au