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Do self help books work? Mental health experts weigh in

BY Victoria Stokes

16th May 2023 Wellbeing

Do self help books work? Mental health experts weigh in

Brits are buying record numbers of self-help books, but are they a help or a hinder when it comes to good mental health?

What’s your first port of call when you aren’t feeling your best? You might call a friend, book a therapy session, or, like an increasing number of Brits, perhaps you pick up a self-help book.

Some say these books, with their unfailingly positive advice and seemingly simple solutions, relieve stress and offer hope when it seems there is none. But do they reinforce the idea that you must suck it up and get on with it during tough times, rather than reaching out for support?

Do these "life-changing" books set unrealistic expectations for our futures, leaving us distraught when we fall short, and oversimplify the very real barriers many of us face day-to-day, particularly those from marginalised communities?

The three self-help book categories

Psychologist doing CBT with clientMany psychologists draw from their expertise to write evidence-based self-help books

For clinical psychologist Dr Charlotte Russell, the answer isn’t a clear-cut yes or no, and your experience of self-help books will greatly depend on the kind of books you’re choosing. She says, generally speaking, self-help books can be divided into three categories.

“There are plenty of books written by highly-qualified specialists like psychologists. These books usually feature evidence-based therapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT),” explains Russell.

She says this particular category of self-help book can be hugely helpful if you have a specific problem like social anxiety or low self-esteem because it typically offers clear, evidence-based strategies for addressing these difficulties.

The second category includes books that are based on personal accounts of how someone has overcome a certain obstacle, like navigating grief or building a seven-figure business from the ground up.

“These books can be helpful as it’s often very validating to hear the stories of people who have had similar experiences to us. It’s also inspiring to learn how they managed to overcome that particular difficulty,” Russell points out.

"There are plenty of books written by highly-qualified specialists like psychologists"

On the flip side, personal experiences are just that, personal, and what has worked for one person might not necessarily work for you. This can be frustrating, and in some cases, may leave the reader wondering why they haven’t experienced the same success.

Russell says the third category of books is the most concerning. These are written by people who are not qualified professionals and do not relay a personal story.

“These books may be really engaging, well-written, and provide a sense of hope and inspiration. However, they’re unlikely to provide strategies that are scientifically tested,” Russell warns.

Essentially, you could be taking advice from someone with very little skin in the game, which is risky when addressing something as fragile as your mental health.

Self-help means doing the work

Still, you’ve undoubtedly encountered people—be it in real life or online—who’ve enthusiastically claimed that a particular self-help book has changed their life.

Perhaps it helped them navigate a particularly tricky period of their lives, showed them how to overcome a specific challenge, or finally taught them to see themselves in a positive light. Given that the self-help industry continues to boom, one thing is clear: self-help books are certainly not without merit.

That’s something Toni Jones, founder of Shelf Help, the world’s first self-help book club, can attest to. “I discovered self-help at the same time as so many people before me, at a low point in my life. The lowest, in fact. I was in my late 30s, burnt out from a high-octane career in journalism, and suddenly had a lot of time to myself and by myself,” Jones shares.

“I hadn't spent any time focusing on my mental health, and as a result, I was in a constant state of stress, sadness, and loneliness that I couldn't understand.”

"Self-help books are only guides and—like any teacher—they rely on the student to do the work"

It was then Jones discovered self-help. The first book she read was How To Change Your Life In 7 Days by Paul McKenna.

“That book helped pull me out of a dark place,” Jones muses. “It helped me understand myself and my story more and inspired me to look at my situation and circumstances in new and positive ways that ultimately meant I could move forward.”

In the Shelf Help community, Jones says members report all kinds of mental health benefits, from lower anxiety and improved self-care to better sleep.

For her, it’s implementing the insights and techniques in these books that’s key. “I sometimes see people who do all the reading but no implementation and that can lead to information overload,” she points out.

“Others feel let down when they don't see any changes after a book has promised some big shifts. But self-help books are only guides and—like any teacher—they rely on the student to do the work.”

Do self help books help your mental health? It depends

Man reading self help bookThe right self-help book will be individual to you and what you hope to get out of it

So, are self-help books a help or a hinder for your mental health? “The self-help and personal growth sector is so broad that you can't expect every book to appeal or work for everyone,” Jones points out.

“The best self-help books don't promise all the answers,” she surmises. “Instead they prompt you to ask new and important questions that will help you better understand yourself.”

"The best self-help books don't promise all the answers"

For Russell, it’s important to consider the type of book you’re choosing, the credentials of the author, and what you are hoping to gain from reading it.

As with many things in life, it’s often about finding your perfect fit, and remembering that, if it doesn’t make you feel good, it’s okay to put it down.

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