Are Self-Help Books Helpful?

In 2000, consumers in the U.S. spent $563 million on self-help books. As many people don't have access to adequate treatment-maybe they live in an isolated area, are too busy, or can't afford it-alternatives to psychotherapy such as self-books have enormous potential. They may be a powerful way to help people who otherwise aren't able receive services.

As a therapist, I'm occasionally asked to recommend self-help books. However, the number of self-help books stocked at the chain books stores is staggering. There are plenty of options The question is: how do we choose a self-help book that will helpful?

Difficulties in Choosing a Self-Help Book

One thing readers may not realize is that a writer doesn't need any training or background in mental health in order to write a self-help book. The result is that self-help authors often suggest things based on outdated ideas-if they're based on anything at all! As I've written in a previous blog about pseudoscience in psychology, there are a lot of unsubstantiated claims made about various therapies.

John Gray, the author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, may provide a useful example. His book is a bestseller, having sold over 15 million copies and spawned several related books. What many people may not realize is that, although Gray lists a "Ph.D." after his name, his degree was obtained at an unaccredited correspondence school. He does not even hold a license to practice psychotherapy in the state of California, where he resides. His work has been criticized for reinforcing untrue stereotypes about men and women. Yet Gray remains one of the best-selling self-help authors in the world, commanding high speaking fees for his appearances and workshops.

Another problem with the self-help literature is that even with books that are written by recognized experts in their field and based on well-researched psychological treatments, there is rarely any research on whether the book itself is effective as a standalone treatment. A self-help book may be based on supported principles, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the average person picking up the book can effectively put those principles into practice and/or benefit. David Burns' Feeling Good is one exception: a best-selling self-help book that's been shown to be useful in helping people cope with depression.

Those concerns aside, there's some evidence that self-help books are effective in the treatment psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, and panic-even comparable to face-to-face psychotherapy.

What to Look For

In a review of 50 self-help books, Redding and colleagues looked at the common features of 5 self-help books with the strongest ratings by experts. Books that targeted a specific problem were rated as being of a higher quality. For example, a book focusing on panic disorder may be more useful than one about "changing your life." The stronger books were written from a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) orientation. CBT is a broadly defined approach with a strong research base. The authors note, however, that we cannot conclude that books written from other perspectives are not helpful. Books that make claims that sound too good to be true likely are. Lastly, self-help books should offer specific guidance about how to use the book and how to monitor whether it is helping or not.


So what can we conclude from all this? Not as much as I'd like, I'm afraid. Self-help books, in my view, appear to be a largely untapped potential for people unable to or reluctant to engage in psychotherapy. In an ideal scenario, self-help books would be based on principles with scientific support. They would be rigorously tested to determine if: A.) consumers are able to understand and correctly follow them; B.) consumers actually get better! Additionally, the book would provide ways for readers to evaluate their progress, as well as offer alternatives (e.g., contact a therapist) if the consumer doesn't improve. These books would be revised every so often according to new research.

Unfortunately, books that have been evaluated in the way I described make up a tiny, tiny minority of the books on the market. Instead I can only offer more general guidelines:

1.) Choose books that target specific problems, such as panic or obsessive compulsive disorder. Ones that are more general-"improve you life!"-may be less useful.

2.) Avoid books that promise miracle cures.

3.) Look for books that offer very specific guidance on how to use them and how to monitor whether you're improving.

4.) Books by authors who work at an academic institution may be safer. The reputation of academics lies more on their ability to be objective researchers than on selling books or promoting their own brand of therapy. Consequently, they are less likely to support unfounded ideas, as that may damage their reputation as scientists.

Please remember: just because you don't get better after reading a self-help book, it doesn't mean there's no hope for you. Contacting a professional may be a useful next step.

For anyone interested, Mental Health Net offers an online self-help guide called Psychological Self-Tools."

  • Angela

    As an almost lifetime depressive I have read many self help books. The one that I recommend most is "Feeling Good" by David Burns. I also, have gone from there to reading some of Aaron Beck's books where, I believe, Burns has extrapolated theory in FG.

    For someone who is depressed FG is a much more readable and useful tool. It doesn't require the more intense reading It is more like an easy way to help realize some of the things that get in the way of happiness.

    Aaron Beck has more theory if one is interested. I am grateful to Aaron Beck for his work and for David Burns for putting it out there.

    One other book I sometime recommend is Susan Jeffers "Feel the Fear and do it anyway".

  • Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

    I have found Mira Kirshenbaum's book "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay " to be a useful resource. I'd like to recommend that book as an example of self-help done right.

  • Anonymous-1

    I think this whole piece need to be read with some discretion.

    Firstly the link on Facebook reads 'Are Self-Help Books Helpful? - Online Self-Help Book for Mental Health, Mental Illness'.

    Then 'Men are from Mars' is used as an example and disceted in one instance by discrediting the authors qualifcations...

    I would propose that only a tiny minority of people would read the book and take it as truth. It is pop book on relationships not an academic text clearly demonstrated by the fact that it is interesting and people actually volunteer to read it. The book resonates with people.

    The fact is there are 'pop' self help books that can really help people and then there are self help books that focus on specific mental health problems.

    It is clear that millions of people get something from the former.

    The real issue with self-help books is when they generate a disatisfaction with life then puport to offer the solution.

    Was the person more satisfied before they read it?

    The other issue is 95% of people do not put into action what the book says.

    I challenge anyone to read a book like 'Awaken the Giant Within' or '7 Habits of Successful People' and do all the exercises for 6 weeks and argue that they have not received help!

    For more serious mental health problems other than 'life' well that may be another matter.

    Love more...M

    Dr. Dombeck's Note: The nature of the title is that it is an amalgam of the title of the article itself, and the title of the topic center in which it has been placed, in this case our book Psychological Self-Tools, which is offered as a discussion of self-help methods for coping with mental health/illness issues. The software puts it together that way, just to be clear.