Home Leisure & Lifestyle What the Hell Is Wrong with Self-Help Books?

What the Hell Is Wrong with Self-Help Books?

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Something strange happened to me this morning: I saw a headline about Dr Jordan Peterson, and I actually (for once) agreed with him. He talked in his Irish Times interview (towards the end; the rest of the article mostly just says he’s ‘not that bad’) about the usefulness of self-help books:

‘Because I’m a clinical psychologist I have a soft spot in my heart for self-help books. They’re often quite helpful to people, and I think about them as introductory ethical philosophy. You know, academic and intellectual types, they find it entertaining to be supercilious about self-help books, but people are reading those damn books. First, they’re reading. Second, it’s non-fiction. Third, it’s conceptual, and it’s aimed at moral improvement. It’s like, what the hell’s wrong with self-help books?’

(I fully expect this will be the last time I agree with him on anything, but I’ll leave it at that.)

Of course, he has financial incentive to tout self-help books: he wrote one.

Self-help works

In Wales, you might go to a doctor for stress, low self-esteem, or anger, and come out with a prescription for a book.

From the NHS Wales’s website: ‘Book Prescription Wales is a scheme that aims to help people with mild to moderate emotional problems to make use of high quality self-help books that have been specially selected by psychologists and counsellors working in Wales.’

They describe the process as ‘highly successful’, and with good reason. A European Journal of Public Health meta-study of 10 studies on so-called ‘bibliotherapy’ cited lasting improvements for self-help books on one’s mental health, even six months later. 

The mental health accounts I follow on Twitter – real humans (I checked) – also love self-help books. They share recommendations all the time, a few of which I’ve collected here

And self-help doesn’t have to be through a book. Digital self-help, particularly via CBT apps, has proven its efficacy in several studies – possibly even just as effective as face-to-face therapy. Even robochat apps have been shown to teach CBT effectively. If a robot can teach us CBT, surely we can teach ourselves. 

Therapy works, too (if you can afford it)

On the other side of the equation, you have the ‘academic and intellectual types’ Peterson mentioned who look down on self-help. Many of these are therapists and psychiatrists who have financial incentive to tell you to avoid self-help books: they’d really, really like you to pay for therapy.

Consider NAMI’s section on the treatment of mental illness. For each mental health condition they talk about, they list the preferred form of treatment: therapy, medication, and some alternative approaches. 

It’s a great resource, truly. But self-help books aren’t mentioned once, despite their proven efficacy.

And meanwhile, when you go to therapy, what do they do?

  • Listen to you vent, which is what Twitter is for.
  • Teach you breathing and grounding techniques, which you can learn online.
  • Walk you through CBT workbooks, which you can do on your own.
  • Give you worksheets, most of which you could be getting through CBT and DBT workbooks.

Granted, some CBT workbooks are easier to digest than others. And sometimes cognitive distortions are so pervasive that you need a therapist to help talk you through them. But what if instead of paying for therapy each week, a therapist prescribed you a self-help book (like in Wales) and was then available for as-needed consultations? How much money could you save?

I am not saying therapy is useless. It’s not. And if you just so happen to:

  • have good insurance
  • qualify for care-based on a sliding scale or through some kind of church service
  • need a type of therapy that doesn’t come with oppressive wait times
  • have the patience needed to wrangle with various doctors and pharmacies and insurance companies
  • find a therapist that you get along with

Then go for it. I don’t, though. I don’t have any of that. And I know I’m not alone. It’s all well and good for celebrities like Channing Tatum to say everyone should be in therapy, but who’s paying for it? 

Final thoughts

What I do have is at least 13 years of lived experience in this system, since my diagnoses of depression and anxiety when I was 15. (I probably had it for far longer.)

I write to you not as a professional, nor someone financially motivated to sell you a self-help book. I write to you as someone who tried it the hard way for years. The medications made me so tired that I couldn’t accomplish anything, and none of the therapists I had understood me or my needs.

My recovery was only made possible through self-help books. I am where I am today because of them. Of course, they don’t work for everyone. To quote Peterson for the second (and hopefully final) time in my life: ‘Whether something’s useful to you depends on where you’re situated and people pick the self-help book that’s in their zone of proximal development.’

But as advocates for mental health awareness, we cannot turn up our noses at self-help. Mental health care in the US, UK, and Canada is broken, and the human cost is high. We cannot afford to be snobbish.

  • Those with mental illness: If you can’t access traditional therapy and medication, try self-therapy. You have little to lose.
  • Doctors: Try suggesting self-help to your patients with symptoms of a mental health condition.
  • Therapists: Understand that our current mental health care system is not working, and the role self-help needs to play in addressing its failings.
  • Advocates: It’s no longer enough to spread awareness. We need to fight for better systems of care. But while we fight, we need to start recommending self-help as an alternative form of care.

Valarie Ward is a mental health writer and advocate specialising in articles and grant proposals.

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