Do self-help books work?

 

Having just returned from the USA where all bookshops have extensive sections on ‘self improvement’, and ‘self-help’ is big business, I couldn’t help thinking Bridget Jones had the right idea when she tossed them all into the bin. As a lifelong cynic I find the wilder claims made by some authors completely beyond the pale. I simply don’t believe that reading a book by a well know hypnotist can make me rich, thin or universally loved, but I do know that selling this promise has certainly made him wealthy.

So when I got home to Yorkshire I scanned my bookshelves to see how many I could find. There were a few more than I suspected, including two celebrity endorsed books on nutrition and fitness, a book for the ‘highly sensitive person’ (how to thrive when the world overwhelms you); a guide to help people who live with a person diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (I’ve absolutely no idea why I bought that- but perhaps it was a present for my other half). Similarly there was an aging copy of ‘Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You?’ with a photograph of the idyllically happy couple who authored it on the back. Where and when did I get that? Under one of the piles on my study floor I later found a copy of ‘Organising for the Creative Person’ … clearly ineffective.

However, to be serious, I can understand why self-help books are so popular:

  • A book is cheaper than therapy- and easier to obtain.
  • A book provides not only information, but hope, inspiration and things that you can practically do to solve my problems.
  • There is a vast choice of different books on offer. When one doesn’t work you can always try another.
  • The answer to your problems- all in one book?

I didn’t write my memoir as a ‘self-help’ book, but I’ve heard from readers who have found it helpful in explaining what depression is and how it can be treated. I hoped my story would provide some insight and hope for others living with depression, but it doesn’t contain much direct advice or strategies for coping. I just don’t have a simple, straightforward solution that will fit everyone who gets depressed. My explanation is more complicated… that everyone has their own experience of depression, and the parts played by psychological, biological or social factors not only differ between us, but change throughout our lives. Nevertheless some bookshops include my book in the ‘personal development’ section and maybe that is one place it fits.

The books that really trouble me suggest:

  • There is a single, simple answer to your problem
  • What has happened to you is essentially your own fault and there are things you should do to overcome this.
  • Strategies that may actually be harmful- such as stopping all prescribed medication because the author hasn’t personally found it helpful- and failing to tell you to discuss it first with your doctor, or get some informed advice about how to withdraw gradually.

And if you cannot get any benefit from the strategies that are suggested then this can lead you to blame yourself (if you are not doing that already) and feel even worse. Many of the things that cause us problems are not under our control, so we might feel even more helpless because we cannot change them.

But can they really help? There is remarkably limited research into this question. Self-help books really do seem to be effective for some people, but most of the published evidence is from those that apply ideas taken from cognitive behaviour therapy. ‘Guided’ self-help where the book is used in conjunction with brief sessions from a therapist, in which you can discuss what you have read, ask questions and generally be supported through the process of change, is more effective than simply reading a book on its own. Information alone isn’t enough- support is also important in helping people to help themselves.

Self-help is also more likely to work if you are highly motivated to seek help, and positively choose it, not have it prescribed to you- which was clearly found to be a problem in the recent study of computerised CBT prescribed to people with depression, in which I played a minor part. And a person with more severe depression simply may not have the drive and energy to find that motivation- which is one of the reasons I find the exhortation to ‘Climb Out of Your Prison’ (the title of a bestseller in the genre) so problematic, even though this idea clearly has currency for some. I’ve previously written on this blog about the crass insensitivity of handing information and leaflets out to people with severe mental health problems and those who are in crisis.

What one person will find a helpful idea will be an anathema to others. The social scientist Bergsma, writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, it exists) suggests that self-help books ‘offer a strong antidote against learned helplessness… but perhaps for readers that do not suffer from it.’ And current health policy supports the idea that we should all be responsible for ourselves, however unwell we happen to be, rather than dependent on the state.

Books can provide information and inspiration, but they can only point to possible directions in which to travel. According to Susan Krauss Whitborne, writing in Psychology Today the prospective reader might do 5 things:

  • Check out the author’s credentials- who are they? How are they qualified to write on the topic- and that doesn’t mean they have to an academic reputation or be famous.
  • Think of the book as your therapist: work done by Rachel Richardson and her colleagues at the University of York suggests that a successful self-help book establishes a relationship with you, gives you hope, confidence and anticipates you will find it difficult to keep going at times. Just like a good therapist.
  • Look critically at the quality of the writing. Is it going to ‘engage you, enrage you or just bore you to tears?’
  • Decide if the book will motivate you.
  • Don’t be afraid to give it a critical reading.

I have just remembered there are several more bookshelves in Scotland – and that’s where the latest ones are…on mindfulness.

If you ever hear that I am writing a self-help book, please remind me to re-read this blog.

My memoir ‘The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression’ is available now.

2 thoughts on “Do self-help books work?

  1. James Bergman says:

    I I agree that you need to make a connection to your self-help book. It has been my experience that it is the only way to get myself motivated to act on what I read. Then, once it has worked once, I am more likely to try it again. It is all about baby steps for me.

  2. Sasha Cohen says:

    I like this article very much. I have been struggling with personal issues for 10 years and have found reaching out online to seek the advice of others has helped me through the good and bad time. I have always had relationship issues and have started to follow the advice of Dr. Robi Ludwig. I saw her on a tv show once and I really appreciated her take on current psychological issues. I have been following her twitter for updates and advice https://twitter.com/drrobiludwig?lang=en

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