Self-help on prescription – isn’t that a contradiction? Not really. There’s only so far your doctor can go when you ask for help. The role of the doctor is often to advise and support. Sometimes a tablet will result in a cure but where mental health is concerned the tablet is more likely to offer some support for those who think meds may help.
Self-help books are increasingly viewed as a valid and useful way of supporting people with mild to moderate mental health issues. Various schemes have been set up that now allow family doctors to prescribe books in much the same way they might prescribe medication, and the evidence suggests it works.
The popularity of self-help books has increased greatly over the past few years. What used to occupy a small corner in the average bookshop now takes up whole sections and pulls in billions of dollars a year. The self-help market also has something of a checkered history. The most popular aren’t necessarily the best in terms of evidence-based advice and several continue to perpetuate myths, half-facts or personal oddities favored by the author.
Despite the potential problems all self-help books have something in common: Hope. Whether improvements in people happen as a result of the specific information, exercises and recording sheets often contained within the covers is an interesting point. We can’t ignore the fact that whether it’s a book, or a person, the fact that someone seems to understand, can tell us we’re not alone and that there are things we can do in order to cope better, is a powerful force.
Do Self-Help Books Work?
Well this depends on what you’re looking at. As a general category the self-help market embraces issues such as gaining personal insights, methods of personal growth (the biggest market), personal relationships, the search for happiness and so on. So far as mental health is concerned the main emphasis tends to be around insight into the condition and coping strategies.
Over the past decade libraries have increasingly begun to stock titles that qualified health professionals feel offer the best in terms of sound advice. The conditions are varied but include anxiety, stress, panic, phobias, OCD, depression and more besides. Results of a randomized controlled trial published in the journal Plos One, is just one example of several demonstrating the worth and potential of self-help books.
Although we may think of the family doctor as the person who prescribes medication this has never really been an accurate picture. A physician has always had the right not to prescribe, or to prescribe rest, simple home remedies, fresh air and so on. Exercise by prescription is now more common, so it stands to reason that more and more doctors are prepared to prescribe self-help literature, websites or CDs, all of which can be accessed via local libraries. As such schemes develop it will increasingly become clearer what is most or least effective in terms of its use.
Taking The Initiative
If you trawl the internet for help ideas with stress, depression or anxiety, you’ll quickly see the same things start to emerge. These can be summarised as:
- Getting proper amounts of sleep.
- learning to recognise stress triggers.
- learning to respond to stress in a positive way.
- learning to question negative beliefs and attitudes.
- getting fresh air and exercise.
- learning to relax properly.
- having faith in your own abilities and strengths.
The point here is that the biggest changes to our mental health are made from within. We’re programmed to seek health advice from health professionals and while this is a good first step, because it may rule out physical issues that can can emotional distress, it’s far from the full picture. Relying on a third party to solve our issues isn’t going to work. Self-help, if properly directed and sourced from a perspective of evidence rather than belief, is much more powerful than many give credit. So take the initiative, prescribe your own self-help, and set about boosting your mental health yourself.
Not sure where to start? Well browsing bookshops is one way but this is a bit hit and miss. Increasingly some health practices and psychological services offer support and guidance to help you pick through the dross and find the good stuff. The video below is one such example:
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