Can self-help books actually improve your mental health? What are the pros and cons of reading them? My thoughts and personal experience with self-help books.
Self help books have been around for a long time. Pretty much since humans started publishing written content for public consumption there have been various forms of self-help reading. You can think back to old advice columns in magazines or newspapers, as well as etiquette or home management books.
In recent years self-help books have lost a lot of their stigma and have grown in popularity. Growing up I can remember in a number of television shows and movies, scenes where characters snuck into the self-help section of the library or bookstore, hiding their selections and faces in embarrassment. However, many authors, like Brené Brown, have really helped change the stigma around self-help and popularized this genre. On social media you can also find a lot of self-help writing from many different content creators. This in combination with wider discussion of mental health has led to an explosion of the availability of these kinds of books.
But are they really helpful? If so, how do we wade through all the various sources to find something that might really work?
It can seem daunting when we are struggling with our mental health to dig through lists of self-help books. All we want is some relief, but how do we find it? In my experience, there are 4 important questions to ask in finding a good self-help book for your particular mental health journey:
- Who is the author and what is there experience with the topic? When looking for self-help books I tend to look for books from authors with degrees in the mental health field. For example, a psychologist who specializes in the area. Although lay authors and journalists often offer engaging writing, when it comes to really treating my mental health I want to be sure the person I am getting my information from someone who is knowledgeable and experienced.
- What is the format? Some self-help books are formatted like journals with prompts and questions to respond to, some are formatted like chapter books, and some are formatted almost like textbooks primarily focused on providing information. Consider which format is best suited to you and what you are hoping to get out of it. Do you see yourself just reading the book, or doing exercises too?
- What topics are you looking for? Would you prefer a specific topic or general topics? Because there are so many self-help books it’s important to narrow down what subject you are looking for. For example, I might be looking for help with anxiety, or trauma, or depression. Books that narrow in on the topic might be more helpful in addressing a specific problem rather than those more generally about wellness or mental health. Or maybe you just want to generally have better mental health, in that case a general book might be better for you.
- What do the reviews say? Reviews can be really helpful in getting a sense of whether or not a book is right for what you are going through. Other people struggling with the same issues can comment on whether or not they found the book helpful and why. Support groups and association websites can also be a great place to find book recommendations as well.
In my experience, I have really enjoyed self-help books. I find them to be an accessible way to continue to work on my mental health no matter how busy I am, or my financial situation. It is time I take for myself to care for myself without having to leave the house or find a qualified professional near where I live. My husband and I also enjoy self-help books to work on our marriage. We take time once a week to sit down and work through a chapter or exercise together and it has been helpful in navigating difficulties in our life together.
Here are a few reasons why I think self-help books are a great way to care for your mental health:
- They are affordable. Much less expensive than conventional therapy, most self-help books are between $20-30, whereas conventional therapy costs around $100 (or more) a session.
- They discuss a huge range of topics. While you may not be able to find a specialist in your immediate area, there are self-help books on a plethora of different topics including, anxiety, trauma, depression, grief, OCD and many other mental health topics.
- Your experience is self-guided at your own pace. Unlike in other forms of mental health care, you are the sole control of your experience. You can read and work through the material as slowly or as quickly as you like when you are ready to. This can be particularly helpful in certain difficult mental health areas like trauma.
- They can be easily shared with others. If you know someone who is struggling with a similar problem as you, you can easily share your book or recommend it to them.
- You can revisit them in the future. As you have the book in your home library, you can highlight helpful passages and return to them as needed.
- You can find many different opinions on the same topic. While you wouldn’t be able to consult as many experts in person, you can purchase many books from different authors on the same topic potentially giving you access to more information or therapeutic techniques.
There are ofcourse some limits to the ability of self-help books. So, of course, I’m not advocating you stop going to therapy or that self-help books can completely cure you. Here are some of the limits of self-help books:
- If you don’t read it, it can’t help you. If you don’t commit to reading the book and go through the exercises it can’t help you, and because it is self-guided, there is no one to really hold you accountable. Whereas a therapist can follow up with you to help encourage you to keep coming back.
- Some issues are better tackled with a professional. Obviously there are limits to a self-help book mostly because it is only a book and not a live person. For serious mental health disorders (schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, dissociative disorders etc.) a self-help book might not be enough.
- There is no therapeutic relationship. In psychology there is something called the “therapeutic relationship” which is the relationship that develops between the patient and the therapist. This relationship (trust, bond etc.) is thought to be one of the beneficial aspects of therapy. Clearly a book is not a live person and therefore it cannot fully provide this component of therapy. Although I think a connection with the author can foster some helpful effects.
Self-help books are not the same or necessarily a replacement for conventional therapy. However, particularly for people with limited financial means, they can be a very helpful and effective way to improve mental health.
You shouldn’t feel ashamed about reading them because the impulse to reach for them comes from a place of self-compassion, and that is nothing to be ashamed of, caring for yourself is healthy and normal. Also, everybody struggles and working on those struggles is something to be proud of not embarrassed by.
Overall, I highly recommend reading self-help books.
Have you tried self-help books? If so, did you find it helpful? Comment below.