How to choose good self-help resources

Self help concept.In recent years, more Americans will seek mental health information from the Internet or attend a self-help group than will consult all mental health professionals combined. Self-help is, frankly, big business. According to recent market research, Americans spend an estimated $10 billion a year on self-improvement products!

While it is big business, it’s not always scientific business. More and more products come out every year, and as most of you should know, it’s of varying quality. There just isn’t much the average consumer does to determine if something has actually been proven to help others or not. Of the approximately 5,000 self-help books published every year, most are published without any research documenting their accuracy or effectiveness. The internet in particular is full of snake-oil salespeople. Most of us can point to one product you’ve bought that wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.

With this in mind, I’m writing a three-part post on some guidelines for choosing self-help products. There are 12 points that I want to emphasize, adapted from prominent psychologist Dr. Norcross’ excellent Self-Help that Works, 4th ed. I’m not receiving any money for doing this, nor do we know each other in any way, I just agree with him. I’m motivated to help the millions out there that want to select something that will help them, that experts like myself agree can actually be helpful. I’ll be sprinkling in some books to avoid, as well as a couple to look at throughout.

1. Don’t choose something because of its cover, title or advertising

I’m a lifelong reader, and honestly this is a factor in how I choose fiction books. Self-help, however, is a section full of landmines. Most books that claim a “phenomenal breakthrough” or a “revolution” are flat-out lying. Both good and bad self-help books have fancy covers, catchy titles, and expensive advertisements. These have nothing to do with the quality of the book. Because a book is a bestseller does not mean it’s any good, it just means people have bought it.

Be especially careful with love and marriage related books. I’ll give an example. For a person or a couple seeking to improve male-female communication skills I’d be happy to recommend You Just Don’t Understand, by Tannen, or Intimate Strangers, by Rubin. On the other hand I’d steer people clear of the Mars and Venus books by John Gray, and anything written by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. This is not based on my personal bias, but rather the former books that are actually proven to work and the latter are definitely not.

To sum up, go beyond the cover, the celebrity testimonials, the fancy ads or the bookstore’s elaborate display. Instead, consider making your choices based on the 11 strategies I outline.

2. Select resources that make realistic rather than grandiose claims

The thing we all want is to cope or deal with a problem as effectively, painlessly, and quickly as possible. The problem is that resources claiming extravagant things suck people in to buying them, and are not as effective as those that are more realistic.

Simply put, when a self-help claim appears too good to be true, it probably is. Most resources that include “miraculous” somewhere is something to be wary of. Many of us have already learned this the hard way with diet books. Overcoming depression or anxiety, improving the quality of your relationship or becoming more self-fulfilled are not easy tasks. They take time and dedication.

3. Examine the research evidence reported in the book

The great majority of self-help out there isn’t based on reliable scientific evidence (typically the opposite of what they claim). Often it is based on the writer’s own experiences or some testimonials. Try to steer clear of these. Most books have almost no elaborate research citations, and that’s by design. Authors of the most effective resources typically summarize the research evidence, the clinical evidence, or both, and list research sources in notes at the end of the chapters or in an appendix at the end of the book.

Books like Learned Optimism, by Seligman, or The Courage to Heal, by Bass & Davis, have undergone careful scrutiny by the clinical and research community for years and are proven to be effective. The Love-Powered Diet, however, is an example of the opposite. The author bases the book on her own experience, and despite the claim of “cutting edge nutritional research” there is absolutely none listed in the book, even though it’s currently in its third edition.

4. Choose self-help that has been tested as self-help

Sounds pretty obvious right? Unfortunately many of the books out there tout techniques that can be effective, but only when administered by a mental health professional, not the typical layperson. So yes, “research proven” or “clinically tested” methods can mean they actually work when a professional is helping, but we have no way of knowing if they are effective or feasible as self-help.

For example, more than 75% of us can’t successfully self-administer a toilet training program, a sexual dysfunction method or an anti-anxiety procedure on our own. Sure, a particular method may be effective when it’s “clinically tested at a major university” but that doesn’t mean you or I will get the same results. If you’ve tried to toilet train your child in one day using a book that claims it can be done in 24 hours, you probably met with some disappointment!

There are many online self-help programs out there, for the whole gamut of issues that afflict the human condition, but that doesn’t mean they work when a layperson tries them at home. Think about this before you shell out money. The website FearFighter is a program that has passed this test for those with multiple kinds of anxiety disorders–I’d recommend it to anyone. For those looking for support with others who have their kind of anxiety, The Anxiety Panic Internet Resource has a sterling reputation, as does the ADAA.

That’s it for part 1, follow my blog or check back and I’ll publish the next two parts. Both will be filled with more ideas to help good decision-making when it comes to choosing self-help. If you have any questions about this or would like some personalized recommendations, please feel free to Contact Me by clicking on this link, or the menu above.


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