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A woman peruses the self-help selection of books at the Borders Bookstore in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2003. (MIKE APPLETON/AP)
A woman peruses the self-help selection of books at the Borders Bookstore in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2003. (MIKE APPLETON/AP)

Are self-help books useful or a waste of my time? Add to ...

The question: I’m curious about therapy, but not ready to commit to seeing someone on a regular basis. My aunt keeps encouraging me to read different self-help books. I assume it will be very difficult to follow through on all the advice in these books. Are they useful or a waste of my time?

The answer: Fantastic question. You, like many people who have not tried therapy before, have some hesitations and apprehensions about making a regular commitment to undergoing treatment.

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This can be understandable if you have no reference point for what therapy may look like, if you have limited funds or coverage for treatment (this is unfortunately the biggest barrier for most people), or if you are not yet emotionally prepared to start to peel away the layers on some significant issue(s) in your life.

Undertaking some self-directed work, with the aid of self-help books, can certainly be a great place to start.

A plethora of self-help books exist on every topic under the sun. It can be overwhelming to know what to get given the range of books that are available.

Start by doing your research. Look for recommendations from friends, read online reviews of books, and also look to reputable psychological/mental health websites that offer suggestions. If you visit my website and go to Individual/Employee Resources, you will see that I have listed a range of freely available and downloadable treatment materials that I have co-authored (on depression, coping with chronic health conditions, dealing with suicidality). I have also listed useful websites that offer other recommendations, as well as a list – by topic – of books and treatment manuals that I recommend.

There are a few guidelines to follow as you are undertaking your search: find books that have been around for some time and that have solid reviews behind them; look for books authored by licensed professionals (where the author is described as being “registered” or “licensed” in their jurisdiction of practice) and look for words such as “evidence” or “research-based.” This will help ensure you are accessing high-quality resources.

Certainly the level of benefit you obtain from self-help materials depends on a combination of the nature of your presenting issues, and the severity of those issues. Research supports the benefit of self-guided work (through self-help or self-management) of the common mental health conditions (depression and anxiety) when those issues are in the mild to moderate range of severity. As presenting issues move into more serious levels – for example, if you are experiencing a significant impact on your ability to fulfill your day-to-day obligations and tasks – then self-help materials are most helpful when they are augmented by the assistance of a health professional who helps you work through your difficulties.

Also remember that you can meet a therapist once or twice to get further information without necessarily having to undertake an intensive course of treatment. In my practice, I see many high-functioning individuals who find a session every four to six weeks is enough to help keep them on track with other work they are doing independently in between our sessions.

Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV’s The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail’s Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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