There are hundreds of self help books available on bookstore shelves. These books promise to help you lose weight, beat depression, reduce anxiety, even recover from borderline personality disorder (BPD). Pick any problem and you will probably find at least five self help books that are designed to tackle it. And, research has shown that these books can work; for example, self help programs for depression and anxiety are associated with reduced symptoms in people who use them.
Unfortunately, these books can vary dramatically in terms of their quality. With so many books available, how do you know which to choose? Of course, reading reviews of the books can help, but it can also help to have a keen eye for the factors that make a self help book more likely to be a reliable source of information, and the factors that alert you to sources that are less trustworthy.
Choose Self Help Books: What to Look For
Below are some general guidelines to help you choose self help books. It is important to note that these are generalizations; there are some very good self help books that do not meet all of the guidelines below, and other poor quality books that on the surface appear to meet the criteria. However, these guidelines may help you narrow down your choices.
Who is the Author? First, take a look at who wrote the book. In general, quality self help books are written by people who are considered experts in the topic. Usually, these individuals are mental health professionals who hold doctoral or medical degrees, conduct research in the topic area, have experience as practitioners, and are affiliated with academic institutions. Self help books that are of less quality tend to be written by people who are not professionals.
How Broad is the Topic Area Covered? Another characteristic of lower quality self help books is that they tend to cover very broad topic areas. For example, these books may promise methods to change every area of your lifestyle for the better. If a book promises this, be cautious. Often an approach that specifically targets the problem you are having is more realistic.
Where Does the Author Get Their Information? Next, evaluate where the information in the book is coming from. Flip to the back of the book (or the end of each chapter). Are there references cited? Most good self help books cite references from the peer-reviewed scientific and professional literature. For example, a citation from the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology or the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that the author has done his or her homework; they have consulted the research literature and are delivering solid advice based on scientific studies.
What Claims Does the Author Make? Finally, it is very important to consider the claims that the author makes about their advice. As a general rule, there are no magical cures. If the author claims that in only 15 minutes a day you can be worry-free for the rest of your life, be skeptical. If a claim about the effectiveness of a program seems too good to be true, it probably is. In fact, good self help books acknowledge the limitations of self help, and provide guidance on seeking professional help.
Consult the Experts. If you are having trouble determining whether a book is of dubious quality, there are resources available to help you determine which self help book is right for you. In addition to consulting online reviews, a group of expert mental health clinicians and researchers have compiled reviews of over 1,000 self help resources by thousands of mental health clinicians:
The Authoritative Guide to Self Help Resources in Mental Health, Revised Edition, by Drs. John Norcross, John Santrock, Linda Campbell, Thomas Smith, Robert Sommer, and Edward Zuckerman. New York: Guilford Press, 2003.
Most libraries carry this guide; it is a great resource for finding good self help books for most mental health problems.
Sources: Den Boer PCAM, Wiersma D, Van Den Bosch RJ. “Why is Self Help Neglected in the Treatment of Emotional Disorders?” A Meta-Analysis.” Psychological Medicine, 34: 959-971, 2004. Redding RE, Herbert JD, Forman EM, Gaudiano BA. “Popular Self Help Books for Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma: How Scientifically Grounded and Useful are They?” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39: 537-545, 2008.
Den Boer PCAM, Wiersma D, Van Den Bosch RJ. “Why is Self Help Neglected in the Treatment of Emotional Disorders?” A Meta-Analysis.” Psychological Medicine, 34: 959-971, 2004.
Redding RE, Herbert JD, Forman EM, Gaudiano BA. “Popular Self Help Books for Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma: How Scientifically Grounded and Useful are They?” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39: 537-545, 2008.