Almost anyone can become a life coach. A hidden camera investigation reveals why that's a problem
Marketplace host paid about $250 and became a 'certified' life coach in an hour
Pretty much anyone can become a life coach.
The unregulated industry requires little-to-no training and offers the possibility of lucrative returns.
But a hidden-camera investigation into the business of life coaching by CBC's Marketplace found that some coaches are doing more than just helping people meet goals — they're offering advice about mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, even though they are not qualified to do so. They're also using what experts call manipulative sales tactics to pressure people to spend hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars for their services on the spot.
Multiple experts, including psychologists, academics who specialize in mental health, and another life coach reviewed consultations and sessions Marketplace producers captured on hidden camera. And they say what they saw was concerning.
"It's a real Wild West," said Lorraine Bennington, a registered psychologist in Vancouver who has also been a life coach since the 1980s. She said that many unqualified coaches may veer into offering what's essentially therapy.
"There is potential risk involved whenever someone treats mental illness without having the appropriate background," she told Marketplace.
A growing industry
While there's no official definition, a life coach is widely regarded as someone meant to help clients set and reach personal and professional goals. Unlike with doctors, psychologists or psychiatrists, there is no academic qualification required to be a life coach, and no governing body to regulate the industry.
Globally, it's estimated that there were about 71,000 coach practitioners in 2019 — a 33 per cent increase from just four years earlier, according to a 2020 study from the International Coaching Federation.
WATCH | How easy is it to get certified as a life coach? Our host did it in about an hour, while shopping:
While there are hundreds of programs claiming to certify and train life coaches, some even providing accreditation, life coaching is not a protected title. Some training programs are as easy to complete as paying a fee and completing a quiz — something one Marketplace host was able to obtain in about an hour, while shopping, after skipping the course material.
"I think it's dangerous, because people are presenting themselves as experts, when they're not," Bennington said.
There is a place for life coaches, said Bennington, particularly when it comes to motivating and helping individuals set goals.
But that broad title and easier access has some Canadians reaching out to life coaches for issues beyond their scope.
"It's much less stigmatizing to connect with someone because they're a life coach as opposed to going to a psychologist," Alan Leschied, a registered psychologist and professor in the faculty of education at the University of Western Ontario, told Marketplace.
Long wait times for appointments with registered mental health professionals in Canada also make seeing a life coach appealing to some people in mental distress, he said.
He maintains people should still seek help from a medical professional if they are in distress, especially since he believes that life coaches are unregulated and "could get in over their heads without the proper training."
'I can't give you advice on meds, but…'
In early December 2021, one producer had two consultations with Karen Strang Allen, an Ottawa life coach specializing in empowering single women. In their first meeting, the producer disclosed having anxiety, depression, and being on antidepressants.
"I can't give you advice on meds, but I will say that a large number of my clients have anxiety and depression, sometimes even more significant issues like being bipolar," said Strang Allen.
"And they're on meds, and they find that doing work with me, they're feeling so much better that they can either reduce or go off their meds."
The CBC producer also told Strang Allen that loneliness and anxiety often led her to cancel plans and feel unable to get out of bed.
"I don't want to knock therapy," said Strang Allen. "The thing I don't like about it is it creates a dependency on the therapist and I teach you how to do the stuff yourself… you're not going to get the answers through therapy … I know I can help you."
Bennington called these responses problematic. "There is a sense of salesmanship," she said, adding the implication of life coaching being potentially better than therapy is "a very strange, inaccurate, potentially dangerous thing."
"If someone has a mental health issue, the right thing for the coach to say is, 'please deal with your emotional issues first, then come see me,'" Bennington said.
In a second session, when the producer mentioned self-harm, only then did the life coach suggest a therapist alongside or before taking her life-coaching program.
WATCH | Marketplace goes inside the unregulated world of life coaching:
Strang Allen responded to CBC's request for comment through her lawyer, writing that she does screen for mental illness to the best of her ability, and refers clients to mental health professionals when needed. She said that her explanation about therapy could have been "better worded."
A disclaimer has since appeared on her website stating anyone with mental illness should seek professional assistance.
'Drugs won't help you'
Another undercover Marketplace producer met with Toronto-based life coach Giovanni Maccarrone, who in a since-deleted YouTube video about depression from 2016, said, "the #1 lie is that it's a chemical imbalance … antidepressant drugs won't help you."
In a consultation, the producer asked if the life coach could help with anxiety and depression.
"You don't have anxiety ... you don't have depression. You're just thinking in a certain way that's making you feel that way," Maccarrone said.
"No matter how many pills you pop, if your mindset is, you know, A, B and C, you're always going to feel depressed," said Maccarrone. "Ninety whatever per cent of people that I worked with have gotten good results."
Christine Purdon, a registered psychologist and professor at the University of Waterloo, who specializes in anxiety disorders, called Maccarrone's responses "grossly simplistic," adding that "it's not a matter of choice, will or mindset."
"That kind of message can be quite damaging because people can engage in a lot of self blame that might prevent them from seeking help to overcome the problem," she told Marketplace. "If it was that simple, it if was just a matter of changing your mindset, no one would need help … you would have solved it by now."
In an emailed statement, Maccarrone wrote, "I deeply regret what I said and how I acted, and I would like to personally apologize for any hurt I may have caused. I accept full responsibility for my mistakes, and I'm committed to making things better going forward."
Calls for the industry to be regulated
Tanya Walker, a commercial litigation lawyer in Toronto focusing on professional negligence, says life coaches could be found negligent if they're acting as a medical professional, and should be telling clients, especially paying ones, the scope of their duties and their limitations.
"If you hold yourself up to be an expert in the area … I think that in this situation a judge would likely find that there is a duty of care if they are providing advice or services for somebody who is looking to them for guidance."
That's why many professionals, including Walker, are calling for the industry to be regulated.
"Those who are vulnerable need some form of protection. That's why lawyers are regulated, nurses and doctors are regulated because we deal with members of the public who when they come to us, they're quite vulnerable."
'A way to get rich quick'
A quick search for life-coaching material online generates numerous articles, videos, and posts about how to be a successful life coach. Many of these measure success by how much money a coach earns, claiming that life coaching can be a six-figure business.
Althea Branton, from St. Catharines, Ont., thought life coaching was her next career. Wanting to help people and lured in by the promise of making six figures a month, she signed up for a training program that claimed she could launch her successful, money-making life coaching business within 90 days.
But soon she found much of the training available to her was focused on making money, not helping others.
"I believe in coaching. I believe that it can work. But now, it's just marketed as a way to get rich quick," she said.
Her practice lasted less than a year.
Both Maccarrone and Strang Allen were documented using sales tactics that Bennington thought were manipulative.
Maccarrone asked the undercover CBC producer what their budget was for life coaching sessions, saying most people "invest between $5,000 and $10,000 for their results." Maccarrone wanted the producer to agree to a $1,000 deposit for six to eight sessions "by the end of [the] conversation."
When the producer repeatedly asked for time to think about the payments, Maccarrone responded, "it's just making me question, you know, [are you] ready for this … it's not about pressure … I'm seeing some hesitation so now I'm kind of asking myself, again, maybe we're not a good fit."
Strang Allen also prompted the CBC producer to decide whether or not to take her group program by the end of the first phone consultation.
"The regular investment for the program is $11,000 Canadian, but if you sign up on the call I give you what's called the fast-action discount where I actually take $3,000 off. All I need is a deposit of $500 plus tax to lock in the discounted rate," she said.
Bennington says this is a classic sales pitch, and people who are vulnerable — such as those suffering from mental illnesses — may be more likely to give in when the program isn't right for them.
The onus is on the consumer
Bennington says there are good life coaches that can be helpful in some situations, as long as they stay in their lane.
"Look for training, look for background," said Bennington. "Do I feel listened to? Are they present with me? Do they seem to have a sales agenda?"
She says experience is important when choosing a coach. "All of the background doesn't guarantee they're good, but it does show a certain credibility or longevity."
Ultimately without more rules in place, Bennington warns the onus is on the consumer to be cautious when finding a life coach.