How to choose good self-help resources, pt 3

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!”

I’m writing the same quote on all three of these posts to underscore the need, by way of reminder, of choosing effective self-help if you are wanting to go that route. Today I will be offering the final four tips to help you evaluate self-help resources. As a psychotherapist I do have some bias about the effectiveness of self-help vs an actual mental health professional. I do agree, however that many times good self-help, if diligently applied, can do a lot of good for a lot of people. So, on to the content.

9. Search for self-help that takes you through the entire change process

Too many self-help books resort to motivational “cheerleading” and inspirational sermons. Many times they pump you up to confront an issue, but don’t actually give any specifics skills to overcome it. A clear example of this is Steps to the Top by Ziglar, in contrast to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey, which offers comprehensive strategies. Loving Each Other by Buscaglia is another unfortunate example. Compare it to Love is Never Enough by Beck, The Relationship Cure by Gottman, or 5 Love Languages by Chapman.

Certainly you want the book to be narrowly focused on your issue, instead of so broad it tries to tackle everything. At the same time it shouldn’t be so narrow it only focuses on one part of the change process. This is analogous to a friend helping you do your taxes but only getting you motivated to find the paperwork, or had you collect your receipts and then expected you’d be fine. Self-help should walk you through the entire process: gaining knowledge, taking a self-assessment, motivation, preparing to change your behavior, learning skills, practicing them, persevering when you make mistakes, and maintaining changes over the long-term.

10. Check out the author’s educational and professional credentials

Especially these days, just about anyone can write a book or set up a web site and start selling their product to their target audience:  you. The author of The Secret is a former television producer. This is not someone I’m typically willing to ask advice from. About 80-90% of the best self-help books are written by PhDs or MDs that have an extensive history of research or have undergone clinical training. Look into their background and see what their reputation is in their field. In other fields, such as business or spiritual pursuits, high-level degrees may not be as important, but what their peers think of them will be a good source of information.

For example, psychologists David Barlow, Edna Foa, Martin Antony and Edmund Bourne are all outstanding resources for anxiety-related disorders. Aaron Beck, George Vaillant and David Burns are all world-renowned experts on depression, relationships and aging. Margaret Caudill is an expert in pain management and health care improvement, and is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Harriet Lerner, Mary Pipher and Kay Redfield Jamison are all distinguished in their fields as well.

These credentials don’t guarantee effectiveness. Folks such as Phil McGraw, Joyce Brothers, John Gray, James Dobson and Wayne Dyer all have degrees but each of them have written self-help books aren’t recommended. Use these dozen strategies together to narrow the field.

11. Be wary of authors who reject the conventional knowledge of health professionals

A big red flag most of the time are those who attack the mental health professions as “too conservative” and overly concerned with scientific evidence. They assert that their ideas are way ahead of their time and it will take years for the scientific community to catch up with them.

Typically the materials of self-help authors who condemn the mental health establishment won’t meaningfully assist you. If you find someone touting their book or resource as being that of a maverick, it’s not necessarily a bar:  simply use more of these tips to help you decide for yourself if it’s worth your time, and your money.

12. Distinguish between balanced information and subtle advertising

The internet really is a double-edged sword. We have an enormous amount of information at our fingertips, but most of it is uncontrolled. Frequently conflicts of interest are no disclosed, financial sponsors are hidden, and advertisements are not labeled as such. I think we’ve all run into this.

Some groups, such as Consumer Union, have launched programs to develop disclosure standards, which do help. In the meantime, be wary and skeptical in general of web sites and remember that some sites charge for listings or are just lengthy advertisements for drug companies and for-profit clinics, for example. Check the “Who We Are” and “Privacy Notice” sections of the sites–if they are sketchy or absent, consider the information on the website biased.

Even armed with the dozen strategies I’ve adapted from Dr. Norcross, you may still have some difficulty in sorting the good from the bad in self-help. As with everything, you will get better with practice, and will become a more knowledgeable and critical consumer.

I hope these articles are helpful to you. If you have questions, concerns, or would like to ask specific questions please feel free to Contact Me directly. Also, be aware that while there is some very good help out there, in some cases it’s simply best to seek out a qualified mental health professional.


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