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Can Self-Help Books Really Help?

Dr. Joti Samra

October 4, 2019

Resiliency

Self-help books have become commonplace: the self-help section of bookstores (actual & online) continues to grow, and the topics that these books address have become more and more diverse, particularly over the last decade. Depending on the issue, some people choose self-help books over more traditional in-office or virtually-delivered therapy. If you choose this route, note that anyone can write a self-help book but it does not mean they are qualified or even give good advice, so choose your materials carefully.

Traditional therapy or self-help?

Many people who have not tried therapy before have some hesitations and apprehensions about making a regular commitment to undergoing treatment. This is understandable if you have no reference point for what therapy may look like, if you have limited funds or coverage for treatment (this is, unfortunately, the biggest barrier for most people), or if you are not yet emotionally prepared to start to peel away the layers on some significant issue(s) in your life.

Some may consider undertaking some self-directed work, with the aid of self-help books, but don’t know where to start, are hesitant about the quality of these materials, or overwhelmed by the amount of material that is readily available.

Where to start

If you are thinking about self-directed work, here are some helpful guidelines to follow to ensure you select credible resources.

Start by doing your research. Look for recommendations from friends, read online reviews, and look to reputable psychological/mental health websites that offer suggestions.

If you visit our website and go to Resources, you will see a range of highly recommended and freely available and downloadable treatment materials.

To ensure you are accessing high-quality resources, keep these tips in mind as you undertake your search:

  • Find books that have been around for some time and that have solid reviews behind them.
  • Look for books authored by licensed professionals (where the author is described as being “registered” or “licensed” in their jurisdiction of practice).
  • Look for words such as “evidence” or “research-based.”

Are self-help books really going to help?

But it isn’t just about finding the most appropriate resources – how do you determine whether or not self-help books will be right for you?

Certainly, the level of benefit you obtain from self-help materials depends on a combination of the nature of your presenting issues and the severity of those issues.

Research supports the benefits of self-guided work for the common mental health conditions – anxiety & depression – when those issues are in the mild to moderate range of severity. As presenting issues move into more serious levels – for example, if you are experiencing a significant impact on your ability to fulfill your day-to-day obligations and tasks – then self-help materials are most helpful when they are augmented by the assistance of a health professional who helps you work through your difficulties.

Also, remember that you can meet a therapist once or twice to get further information without necessarily having to undertake an intensive course of treatment. In our practice, we see many high-functioning individuals who find that a session every four to six weeks is enough to help keep them on track with other work they are doing independently in between our sessions.

Self-directed treatment, through self-help books, and clinical treatment both can be helpful for your mental health.
 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.

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