How helpful is self-help?

Historically, the stigma associated with mental illness has led to many common conditions being ignored, hidden or delegitimised. Fortunately, the relatively recent trend of open public dialogue and acceptance of mental health-related conditions continues to develop, especially among younger generations.

According to Beyond Blue, this shift in public attitude and perception has led to a positive change, as people become increasingly aware of their own mental health, more apt in identifying symptoms of disorders, and more likely to seek some form of treatment.

With more open conversation comes more opportunities to find others that relate your own experiences. Through online platforms specifically designed to facilitate mental health discussions, it’s easier than ever to share advice or experiences and explore new ways to improve your mental wellbeing.

Some have seen this open dialogue as an opportunity to not only spread their own thoughts but to turn a profit as well.

While self-help books are by no means a new concept, there has indisputably been an influx of self-help related consumer items over the last decade. Most book stores will now have whole shelves dedicated to self-help books, for every affliction or life crisis you could think of.

And although this could be seen as a positive reflection on the public’s acceptance of mental illness, as a $9.6 billion a year industry it could also reflect the increasing potential to profit from vulnerable individuals.

What some use to share their legitimate mental-health care advice, others use to make money from an unrealistic and unachievable fantasy, “All the Solutions for Life’s Most Complex Issues, Now Just $29.99 Away!”.

Self-help books have recently gone through a similar reputation change to online dating. What began as something to hide or pretend you don’t need has now become a common topic of conversation with friends over brunch.

Everyone’s bookshelf seems to be stocked with a copy of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k, or your friend can’t wait to tell you about a new mindfulness treatment for anxiety they’ve read about.

But, despite this helping to further reduce stigma as well as produce plenty of options for those seeking help, it can create lucrative incentives for authors to churn out insubstantial and attention-grabbing books to compete in an over-saturated market.

If your target demographic is people in need of mental health care, the author’s ethical responsibility is significant. But unlike a lot of other – perhaps more widely recognised – forms of mental health care, there isn’t yet an ethics board or set of guidelines in place for self-help books.

A 2008 psychology-based study of popular self-help books proposed a set of requirements, suggesting that the author should:

  • Be honest about the limitations of their text, because while learning about different techniques is beneficial, no book is going to be a cure-all
  • Specifically indicate when an issue may require professional help
  • Promote up-to-date psychological theories
  • Provide specific guidance for specific issues, as in no vague statements that could apply broadly or be interpreted in different ways

This study analyzed 50 best-selling self-help texts against these key indicators. It found that although there isn’t official legislation for self-help materials, most best-selling texts met the above standards.

84% of the authors had doctorate degrees and 82% were current mental health professionals. Consumers often are able to tell the difference between well-researched, accurate texts and opinion-based ones, and can use their purchasing power to hold writers accountable.

This largely maintains the standard of expertise and transparency needed to become a widespread success. Books written by experts in their field are consistently more popular, often through word of mouth, reviews or professional recommendations.

However, what’s concerning is the nine books in the study that didn’t provide any citations or references to current research to support their claims.

These were the books with vague and outlandish claims of life-changing results, hollow promises of happiness and guarantees of drastic self-improvement; all being used as a dangerous, unmoderated marketing plow.

This includes one book from the study, which claimed conditions as severe as psychopathy could be completely cured with simple, self-administered techniques that involved tapping on specific parts of the body in sequence.

If something that extreme was allowed to be published, it’s evident that there’s plenty of room for false or harmful claims – even in books that appear credible and well-informed.

Having to determine yourself which books you can trust and which may be biased or under-researched is a potential pitfall to relying on self-help literature as primary mental health care.

This leads us to another possible obstacle, self-help purchases are often prompted by a self-diagnosis. You need to have a pretty good grasp of what aspect of your mental health you’re trying to improve before finding a book that both suits your needs and provides relevant and appropriate techniques.

Even the most well-researched and well-written book won’t benefit a misdiagnosed reader.

Personal therapy, counselling or psychology sessions are inarguably more effective at providing an accurate diagnosis and personalised treatment options.

For those who can’t afford professional help, don’t have the time or resources to attend frequent sessions, or are perhaps constricted by shame, embarrassment or risk of persecution by those around them; self-administered treatment may provide a more discrete, accessible and affordable option.

The rising number of accessible resources for mental-health treatment leads to continuous improvement to the opportunities for self-administered help. Through online symptom checkers, charities such as the Black Dog Institute and Beyond Blue’s extensive online resources, it’s becoming easier to understand the state of your brain without professional input.

Helping yourself without an official diagnosis does come with risks, but it may also be a valuable step toward feeling better. Many psychologists have seen success through self-help, and attribute it to people becoming more actively involved in seeking out and achieving their own behavioral change.

Whether it’s an impulsive self-help book purchase or a bit of online research, actively seeking out ways to feel better – and looking for accessible and practical ways to do so – could be the first step in improving your mental health.

But, this may be easier said than done. Self-helps final downfall lies in its implication that it’s always possible to be single-handedly in control of your own mental state – and that the path to feeling better lies in the right book and the right techniques.

However, some things can’t be solved in isolation. And although this is an indirect implication, a person may feel like a failure if these books can’t help them, or they are unable to help themselves.

Mental illness can be worsened by circumstances that aren’t always within your control, such as the people you live with, financial pressures, or the genetic and biological chemical imbalances in your brain.

Some things are just too big to face alone. Seeking help from friends, family, a counselor or a psychologist is sometimes the only path to getting better, because mental health disorders don’t have a one-size-fits-all cure.

The demand and market for self-help books as an aspect of mental health care is undeniable. Many psychologists even acknowledge and utilise their practicality, recommending certain books as “therapy homework”.

But there remains a fine line between the potential benefits and possible risks, and with the lack of rigid regulation, it’s perhaps a self-care technique to be used with a touch of scepticism.

Even if not stated explicitly by the author, these books should be seen as anecdotal accounts and suggestions rather than tailored recommendations. Because what works for an author or their patients may not work for you.

Image by Rachel Darling

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