Do Self-help Books Work?

Jerry Kennard Health Pro February 09, 2013
  • Self-help books are increasingly viewed as a valid and useful way of supporting people with mild to moderate mental health issues. Various schemes have been set up that now allow family doctors to prescribe books in much the same way they might prescribe medication, and the evidence suggests it works.

     

    The popularity of self-help books has increased greatly over the past few years. What used to occupy a small corner in the average bookshop now takes up whole sections and pulls in billions of dollars a year. The self-help market also has something of a checkered history. The most popular aren’t necessarily the best in terms of evidence-based advice and several continue to perpetuate myths, half-facts or personal oddities favored by the author. 

     

    Despite the potential problems all self-help books have something in common: hope. But if improvements happen, do they occur as a result of the specific information, exercises and recording sheets contained within the covers, or might other factors be at work? Whether it’s a book or a person, the fact that someone seems to understand, can tell us we’re not alone and that there are things we can do in order to cope better, is a powerful force. Perhaps it is this combination that makes self-help material so appealing?

     

    Do self-help books work? Well this depends on what you’re looking at. As a general category the self-help market embraces issues such as gaining personal insights, methods of personal growth (the biggest market), personal relationships, the search for happiness and so on. So far as mental health is concerned the main emphasis tends to be around insight into the condition and coping strategies.

     

    Over the past decade libraries have increasingly begun to stock titles that qualified health professionals feel offer the best in terms of sound advice. The conditions are varied but include anxiety, stress, panic, phobias, OCD, depression and more besides. Results of a randomized controlled trial published in the journal Plos One, is just one example of several demonstrating the worth and potential of self-help books.

     

    Although we may think of the family doctor as the person who prescribes medication this has never really been an accurate picture. A physician has always had the right not to prescribe, or to prescribe rest, simple home remedies, fresh air and so on. Exercise by prescription is now more common, so it stands to reason that more and more doctors are prepared to prescribe self-help literature, websites or CDs, all of which can be accessed via local libraries. As such schemes develop it will increasingly become clearer what is most or least effective in terms of its use.

     

    Sources:

    "Book Prescription Wales." Welsh Government. N.p.. Web. 9 Feb 2013. http://wales.gov.uk/topics/health/nhswales/about/healthinformation/book/?lang=en.