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Abstract

Self-help books for psychological disorders have become increasingly popular, yet there is surprisingly little research on their scientific status or overall utility. The authors identified 50 top-selling self-help books for anxiety, depressive, and trauma-related disorders. Using a scale derived from the literature on bibliotherapy, expert psychologists rated each book on overall usefulness, grounding in psychological science, the extent to which it offers reasonable expectations, the extent to which it offers specific guidance for implementing the self-help techniques and for monitoring treatment progress, and whether it offers potentially harmful advice. The results revealed strong intercorrelations among the scales, such that books scoring high along one dimension tended to score high along others. There was wide variability in the overall quality of the books, but several factors emerged as predictors of book quality. The most highly rated books tended to be those having a cognitive behavioral perspective, those written by mental health professionals, those written by authors holding a doctoral degree, and those focusing on specific problems. Implications of the findings, including specific recommendations for authors and consumers of self-help books, are discussed.
Popular Self-Help Books for Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma: How
Scientifically Grounded and Useful Are They?
Richard E. Redding
Villanova University and Drexel University
James D. Herbert and Evan M. Forman
Drexel University
Brandon A. Gaudiano
Brown Medical School and Butler Hospital
Self-help books for psychological disorders have become increasingly popular, yet there is surprisingly
little research on their scientific status or overall utility. The authors identified 50 top-selling self-help
books for anxiety, depressive, and trauma-related disorders. Using a scale derived from the literature on
bibliotherapy, expert psychologists rated each book on overall usefulness, grounding in psychological
science, the extent to which it offers reasonable expectations, the extent to which it offers specific
guidance for implementing the self-help techniques and for monitoring treatment progress, and whether
it offers potentially harmful advice. The results revealed strong intercorrelations among the scales, such
that books scoring high along one dimension tended to score high along others. There was wide
variability in the overall quality of the books, but several factors emerged as predictors of book quality.
The most highly rated books tended to be those having a cognitive behavioral perspective, those written
by mental health professionals, those written by authors holding a doctoral degree, and those focusing on
specific problems. Implications of the findings, including specific recommendations for authors and
consumers of self-help books, are discussed.
Keywords: bibliotherapy, self-help, anxiety, depression, trauma
Ever since Benjamin Franklin first published Poor Richard’s
Almanac in 1732, Americans have been consumers of self-help
books, which became widely popular in the late 19th century and
throughout the 20th century. Most early books dealt with physical
health, child rearing, character development, and interpersonal
relations (Pardeck, 1993). The first best-selling guide for coping
with psychological problems was likely Karl Menninger’s The
Human Mind, published in 1945. Menninger became a promoter of
“bibliotherapy”—the use of self-help books to treat physical or
mental problems—and many psychiatric hospitals of the time
“began offering bibliotherapy treatment as a program entirely in
the hands of librarians” (Pardeck, 1993, p. 3).
Popular self-help books have emerged as a multimillion-dollar-
per-year industry and have become an integral feature of modern
American culture (see Rosen, Glasgow, & Moore, 2003). Today,
numerous self-help books are available for coping with a wide
range of mental health problems. These books may be used as a
self-prescribed and self-administered treatment, providing a very
cost-effective substitute for professionally delivered therapy. Self-
help books may also be used as a therapist-recommended compo-
RICHARD E. REDDING received his PhD from the University of Virginia and
his JD from Washington and Lee University. He is professor of law at
Villanova University, research professor of psychology at Drexel Univer-
sity, and director of the graduate programs in law and psychology at
Villanova and Drexel Universities. His research interests include the use of
social science in law and public policy, the role of political and moral
values in social science research and its use in public policy, forensic issues
in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and the psychology of legal
decision making.
JAMES D. HERBERT received his PhD from the University of North Caro-
lina. He is currently professor of psychology and associate dean of the
College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University. His research interests
include the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, mindfulness and
acceptance-based models of cognitive behavior therapy, and evidence-
based practice in mental health.
EVAN M. FORMAN received his PhD in clinical psychology from the
University of Rochester. He is an assistant professor in the Department of
Psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he is also the
director of practicum training and associate director of the Hahnemann
Campus Student Counseling Center. His areas of research include
acceptance-based behavioral interventions for obesity, comparing
acceptance-based and cognitively based psychotherapies for the treatment
of anxiety and mood disorders, psychotherapy mechanisms of action, and
posttraumatic stress disorder.
BRANDON A. GAUDIANO received his PhD in clinical psychology from
Drexel University. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry and human
behavior (research) at Brown Medical School and a research psychologist
in the Psychosocial Research Program at Butler Hospital in Providence,
Rhode Island. His areas of interest include evidence-based practice, severe
mood and anxiety disorders, and psychosocial treatment development.
WE THANK Kirk Heilbrun, Scott Lilienfeld, Richard McNally, and Gerald
Rosen for helpful comments on a draft of this article.
CORRESPONDENCE CONCERNING THIS ARTICLE should be addressed to Rich-
ard E. Redding, Villanova University School of Law, 299 North Spring
Mill Road, Villanova, PA 19085. E-mail: redding@law.villanova.edu
Professional Psychology: Research and Practice Copyright 2008 by the American Psychological Association
2008, Vol. 39, No. 5, 537–545 0735-7028/08/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0735-7028.39.5.537
537
nent of professional treatment. Indeed, “it appears that more and
more therapists are beginning to assign bibliotherapy to their
patients as psychotherapy ‘homework’ between therapy sessions”
(Burns, 2000, p. xxix). According to one large survey, 85% of
psychologists reported recommending self-help books to their pa-
tients (Norcross et al., 2000).
Meta-analyses of bibliotherapy effectiveness studies have found
that bibliotherapy is generally an effective treatment for emotional
disorders. The effect sizes for self-help programs range from 0.5 to
1.1 (Cuijpers, 1998; Den Boer, Wiersma, & Van Den Bosch, 2004;
Gould & Clum, 1993; Gregory, Canning, Lee, & Wise, 2004; Hirai
& Clum, 2006; Marrs, 1995; Scogin, Bynum, Stephens, & Cal-
hoon, 1990), and these effects are often maintained months after
treatment (Hirai & Clum, 2006). Most meta-analyses have found
that the effectiveness of self-administered bibliotherapy ap-
proaches that of professional psychotherapy (Den Boer et al.,
2004; Gould & Clum, 1993; Marrs, 1995; Scogin et al., 1990),
perhaps in part because consumers are actively involved in achiev-
ing behavioral change when implementing a self-help program. A
recent meta-analysis of bibliotherapy studies targeting clinically
significant anxiety and depression found that
bibliotherapy is significantly more effective than placebos or waiting
lists (ES 0.84) and may be as effective as professional treatment of
relatively short duration (ES ⫽⫺0.03). . . .Our effect size equals the
results of cognitive therapy in depressed patients (ES 0.82) and is
larger than the effect size of antidepressants (ES 0.50). (Den Boer
et al., 2004, p. 967)
Despite the widespread use and apparently impressive effects of
self-help books, some have expressed skepticism about their va-
lidity and usefulness (see Pearsall, 2005; Rosen, 1987), as many of
the books have never been empirically tested. Reviewing the
research (over 100 studies or case reports) on the efficacy of
self-help materials, Rosen (1987) concluded that the potential
problems with self-help books were threefold: (a) self-help tech-
niques are not always easy to administer and may be administered
inappropriately; (b) self-help efforts can have iatrogenic effects,
only worsening the problem; and (c) the effectiveness of self-help
books is unknown, as most have not been empirically tested.
Dropping out is often a problem, and outcome findings from
therapist-administered programs do not necessarily reflect an in-
dividual’s ability to self-administer the program (Glasgow &
Rosen, 1978; Polivy & Herman, 2002). In addition, many self-help
books contain exaggerated claims of effectiveness, often promot-
ing the treatment as an easily self-administered cure without ex-
plaining the limitations of the self-treatment approach (Rosen,
1987).
Nonetheless, the American Psychological Association’s Task
Force on Self-Help Therapies, chaired by Rosen (1987), noted
several advantages of self-help programs; they (a) are able to reach
large numbers of people, (b) are highly cost-effective, (c) can help
maximize autonomy and individuality by decreasing reliance on
mental health professionals, and (d) can serve educative and pre-
ventive functions. As Albert Ellis observed 30 years ago, “imagine
what a really great potential for improved human functioning a set
of scientifically researched, written and periodically revised do-it-
yourself manuals would probably have” (Rosen, 1987, p. 50). To
date, however, bibliotherapy effectiveness studies have been con-
ducted on a very small number of high-quality books written by
mental health professionals (see Den Boer et al., 2004, for a listing
of studies).
The current study assessed the scientific grounding and useful-
ness, as judged by expert psychologists, of 50 currently popular
self-help books designed for the self-treatment of anxiety, depres-
sion, or trauma. We did not conduct effectiveness studies on each
of these books. Rather, our goal was to ascertain the extent to
which this genre of popular self-help book— books that purport to
dispense valid psychological advice—provides guidance that is
consistent with current psychological science and is in a form that
consumers can use in self-diagnosis and treatment. In this way, our
methodology and purpose differ substantially from the studies
conducted by Norcross and colleagues (Norcross et al., 2000,
2003). Taken together, their studies surveyed a total of 3,500
clinical and counseling psychologists who provided only omnibus
ratings of each book’s usefulness and accuracy based on their
personal opinion and without standard criteria on which to base
their ratings. Although impressive in its comprehensiveness— over
700 self-help books were rated dealing with a wide range of
topics—and in the size of the survey pool, the extent to which the
ratings reflected the books’ scientific grounding is unknown.
We focused on anxiety and depressive disorders (which fre-
quently are comorbid) for several reasons: these disorders are
among the most common mental disorders and among the most
common disorders for which people seek professional treatment
(Kessler, Chiu, Demler, Merikangas, & Walters, 2005; Kessler,
Olfson, & Berglund, 1998), the mental health care system cannot
meet the needs of the vast number of people suffering from
depression and anxiety (Den Boer et al., 2004), treatment can be
expensive, and many are reluctant to seek help because they feel
ashamed. Thus, many people with these disorders turn to biblio-
therapy as a cost-effective, convenient, less stigmatizing alterna-
tive to professional therapy. Focusing on depression and anxiety
also readily allowed us to evaluate the extent to which the prof-
fered self-help treatments are consistent with psychological sci-
ence, because more is known about the etiology and effective
treatment of these disorders than about most any other psycholog-
ical condition (see Chambless & Ollendick, 2001; Kopta, 1999 ).
Method
Measure
In order to evaluate each book, the expert raters completed a
19-item measure of book quality using a 5-point Likert scale (1
strongly disagree,5strongly agree). Items included in the
measure, which was created for the purpose of this study, were
constructed with reference to the literature and commentary on
how to evaluate self-help books and the characteristics that con-
tribute to their effectiveness (see Glasgow & Rosen, 1978;
Pardeck, 1993; Rosen, 1981, 1987). As specified in Table 1, the
measure consisted of five subscales: (a) the extent to which the
book is grounded in psychological science, that is, whether the
diagnostic guidance and self-help techniques offered are consistent
with current psychological theory and research (Psychological
Science; 5 items); (b) whether the book provides specific guidance
for making a self-diagnosis, for implementing and practicing the
self-help techniques, and for monitoring short- and long-term
treatment progress (Specific Guidance; 5 items); (c) whether the
538 REDDING, HERBERT, FORMAN, AND GAUDIANO
book promotes reasonable expectations about the use and limita-
tions of the self-help techniques (Reasonable Expectations; 4
items); (d) whether the book provides potentially iatrogenic advice
(Iatrogenic Advice; 1 item); and (e) the book’s overall usefulness
as a self-administered treatment for behavioral or psychological
change (Overall Usefulness; 4 items). Raters assessed each book’s
grounding in psychological science by evaluating the degree to
which the proffered etiological explanations and treatments were
consistent with current scientific research and theory, irrespective
of theoretical orientation. Subscale scores were derived by sum-
ming the items in each subscale.
Procedure
Expert raters. The four rates were academically affiliated clin-
ical and community psychologists holding doctoral degrees who
had considerable expertise in anxiety and depressive disorders;
who were knowledgeable about the research literature on the
etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of these disorders; and who had
published on these disorders. Each rater had been a practicing
clinician, and three of the four were practicing at the time of the
study. Three of the four raters sat on editorial boards of scientific
psychological journals. Three regularly reviewed manuscripts re-
lating to mood and anxiety disorders and had taught or were
teaching graduate-level courses related to mood and anxiety dis-
orders. All had conducted research on anxiety or depression, and
the rater who served as the criterion judge (James D. Herbert) was
a nationally recognized researcher on the treatment of anxiety
disorders. The theoretical orientations of the raters included two
whose orientations were eclectic and two whose orientations were
cognitive behavioral and biological.
Selection of self-help books. For several reasons, we did not rely
on “best sellers lists,” such as the New York Times Best Sellers List,
to identify the leading self-help books. Such lists rarely include
self-help books for anxiety, depression, or trauma, and they are based
largely on anticipated rather than actual sales (see Woudstra, 2007).
Instead, we identified leading self-help books (as of December 2005)
for anxiety, depression, or trauma by conducting an online search of
the Internet book dealer Amazon.com (with results sorted by sales
ranking) and by cataloging the shelves of two major national book-
store chains, Barnes and Noble and Borders, which generally keep
top-selling books on their bookshelves. This same technique has been
used in other recent studies of the self-help literature (see Irick &
Fried, 2001; Norcross et al., 2003).
Book ratings and interrater reliability. Each of the 50 books,
listed in Table 2, was randomly assigned to a rating sequence (i.e., a
sequence that specified the order in which the books were rated),
rating reliability phases, and raters. Raters read each assigned book in
its entirety and completed a corresponding rating form. The following
steps were taken to ensure the interrater reliability of ratings among
the four judges. In Phase 1, each of the judges independently rated an
initial selection of 3 books from the disorder categories (depression,
anxiety, and trauma). Ratings were then compared and discussed
among the judges, and modifications were made to rating items to
improve their clarity and agreement. In Phase 2, the judges each rated
4 books from the sample until a minimum intraclass correlation
coefficient (ICC) of .70 was achieved. In Phase 3, one of the judges
(James D. Herbert) served as the “criterion” judge on the basis of his
considerable clinical and research expertise in the content areas of the
books selected for review. In this phase, each rater read and rated
10 –12 books, and 4 of each judge’s randomly assigned books were
Table 1
Summary of Book Ratings
Subscales and rating items M(SD) Agreed % (n)
Psychological Science 17.1 (5.5)
1. The author discloses the assumptions or values underlying the treatment approach(es). 3.9 (1.3) 70 (35)
2. The etiological factors described are consistent with psychological research. 3.4 (1.4) 52 (26)
3. The etiological factors described are consistent with psychological theory. 3.5 (1.3) 58 (29)
4. The diagnostic guidance is consistent with diagnostic standards. 3.1 (1.5) 46 (23)
5. The self-help techniques are consistent with psychological research. 3.3 (1.3) 48 (24)
Reasonable Expectations 12.4 (4.5)
6. The book offers the promise of a complete cure or near-cure. 2.7 (1.4) 32 (16)
7. The book clearly articulates reasonable expectations about the benefits to expect from self-help therapy. 3.0 (1.3) 42 (21)
8. The book advises when the reader may need to seek professional help. 3.0 (1.6) 44 (22)
9. The book explicitly prepares the reader for the possibility of setbacks and failures. 3.2 (1.3) 50 (25)
Specific Guidance 15.4 (5.1)
10. The book focuses on one or more specific problems rather than providing a general approach for all problems. 3.7 (1.3) 62 (31)
11. The book provides specific and accurate guidance for the reader to self-diagnose. 2.8 (1.4) 36 (18)
12. The book provides specific and accurate guidance for implementing and practicing the self-help techniques. 3.9 (1.2) 72 (36)
13. The book provides specific and accurate guidance for readers to measure their progress. 2.4 (1.4) 24 (12)
14. The book explicitly presents strategies for coping with problems in the long-term, including recurrences. 2.7 (1.4) 34 (17)
Iatrogenic Advice
15. The book provides advice that is clearly harmful. 2.2 (1.2) 18 (9)
Overall Usefulness 13.4 (4.3)
16. You would recommend this book to your clients. 2.9 (1.4) 40 (20)
17. Overall, this book is helpful. 3.5 (1.2) 60 (30)
18. Overall, this book is grounded in psychological science. 3.2 (1.4) 46 (23)
19. Overall, this book is accessible to readers (i.e., easy to understand by a layperson). 3.9 (1.3) 76 (38)
Note. Percentages pertain to ratings for the total sample of books (N50).
539
POPULAR SELF-HELP BOOKS: HOW SCIENTIFIC OR USEFUL?
also rated by the criterion judge to prevent rater drift and ensure
continued reliability (ICC .70). Final interrater reliability among
the four judges was an ICC of .75. Average interrater reliability
between the criterion judge (James D. Herbert) and each of the other
judges was an ICC of .72.
Results
Internal Consistencies of Rating Scales
Fifty books were rated in the analyses. Internal consistencies of the
rating scales according to Cronbach’s alpha were .94 for the total
score (19 items), .87 for the Psychological Science subscale (5 items),
.83 for the Reasonable Expectations subscale (4 items), .82 for the
Specific Guidance subscale (5 items), and .88 for the Overall Useful-
ness subscale (4 items). Internal consistencies of .80 are considered
adequate for the purposes of group research (Nunnally, 1978).
Characteristics of Books
Most of the books were published or revised between the years
2000 and 2005 (n33; 62%). New Harbinger was the most
frequent publisher of the books in the sample (n17; 34%).
Table 2
Publication Information and Total Quality Score of Books
Book title Primary author Year published Publisher Total quality score
1. The OCD Workbook Hyman, B.M. 1999 New Harbinger 94
2. Dying of Embarrassment Markway, B. 1992 New Harbinger 92
3. The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook Antony, M. M. 2000 New Harbinger 92
4. Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding Neziroglu, F. 2004 New Harbinger 90
5. Stop Obsessing Foa, E. B. 2001 Bantam Books 90
6. The Cyclothymia Workbook Prentiss, P. 2004 New Harbinger 88
7. Bipolar Disorder Demystified Castle, L. R. 2003 Marlowe 84
8. Feeling Good Burns, D. D. 2000 Avon Books 83
9. Overcoming Compulsive Checking Hyman, B. M. 2004 New Harbinger 82
10. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders Penzel, F. 2000 Oxford University Press 81
11. Anxiety, Phobias, & Panic Peurifoy, R. Z. 1988 Warner Books 77
12. The Mood Cure Ross, J. 2002 Viking Press 76
13. Breaking the Patterns of Depression Yapko, M. D. 1997 Doubleday 75
14. Calming Your Anxious Mind Brantley, J. 2003 New Harbinger 75
15. Mind Over Mood Greenberger, D. 1995 Guilford Press 73
16. Overcoming Depression Gilbert, P. 2001 Oxford University Press 72
17. The Depression Workbook Copeland, M. E. 2001 New Harbinger 71
18. The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook Bourne, E. J. 2000 New Harbinger 70
19. Don’t Panic Wilson, R. R. 1996 Harper-Perennial 69
20. Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time Addis, M. E. 2004 New Harbinger 69
21. A Guide to Rational Living Ellis, A. 1997 Wilshire 68
22. Women Who Think Too Much Nolen-Hoeksema, S. 2003 Henry Holt 66
23. The PTSD Workbook Williams, M. B. 2002 New Harbinger 65
24. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook Schiraldi, G. R. 2000 Lowell House 64
25. Depressed and Anxious Marra, T. 2004 New Harbinger 63
26. Change Your Brain, Change Your Life Amen, D. G. 1998 Random House 62
27. Beyond Anxiety and Phobia Bourne, E. J. 2001 New Harbinger 61
28. Fearless Living Britten, R. 2001 Dutton 59
29. The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook Davis, M. 1995 New Harbinger 58
30. Thoughts & Feelings McKay, M. 1997 New Harbinger 58
31. Natural Relief for Anxiety Bourne, E. J. 2004 New Harbinger 55
32. Fear and Other Uninvited Guests Lerner, H. 2004 HarperCollins 54
33. Full Catastrophe Living Kabat-Zinn, J. 2005 Delta 54
34. Panic Attacks Ingham, C. 2000 Thorsons 54
35. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway Jeffers, S. 1987 Ballantine Books 53
36. Trauma and Recovery Herman, J. 1997 Basic Books 53
37. Undoing Depression O’Connor, R. 1997 Little, Brown 52
38. The Gift of Our Compulsions O’Malley, M. 2004 New World Library 48
39. Energy Tapping Gallo, F. P. 2000 New Harbinger 45
40. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living Carnegie, D. 1950 Simon & Shuster 45
41. Post-Trauma Stress Parkinson, F. 2000 Fisher Books 45
42. Overcoming Anxiety Peurifoy, R. 1997 Henry Holt 43
43. Fear Is No Longer My Reality Blyth, J. 2004 McGraw-Hill 38
44. Women and Anxiety DeRosis, H. 1998 Hatherleigh Press 38
45. Healing Anxiety and Depression Amen, D. G. 2003 Putnam 36
46. Instant Self-Hypnosis Blair, F. R. 2004 Sourcebooks 36
47. Tapping the Healer Within Callahan, R. 2002 Contemporary Books 36
48. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma Levine, P. A. 1997 North Atlantic Books 36
49. From Panic to Power Bassett, L. 1995 HarperCollins 35
50. How to Win Over Depression LaHaye, T. 1996 Zondervan 34
Note. Total scores could possibly range from 19 to 95, with higher scores signifying better overall quality.
540 REDDING, HERBERT, FORMAN, AND GAUDIANO
Authors tended to be men (n32; 64%), to have doctoral
degrees (n42; 84%), and to be practicing mental health profes-
sionals (n41; 82%). In addition, most of the books were written
from a cognitive behavioral (n29; 58%) or eclectic (n12;
24%) perspective and covered one specific disorder or psycholog-
ical problem area (n36; 72%). The most frequently addressed
problem was depression (n36; 72%). In addition, the books
most often cited peer-reviewed scientific articles (n15; 30%) or
other writings from the professional literature (n13; 26%).
However, 18% (n9) of the books provided no citations to
support the claims made.
Individual Book Ratings
Table 2 displays the total scores (M62.3, SD 17.7) derived
by summing the 19 items from the rating scale to provide an
indication of the overall quality of each book. Based on a possible
range of 19 –95, the actual scores ranged from 34–94, indicating
substantial variability in book quality.
The OCD Workbook: Your Guide to Breaking Free From
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Hyman & Pedrick, 1999) was the
book that received the highest rating. The book’s main thesis is
that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a neurobehavioral
disorder that can be successfully treated with certain medications,
cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or both. The book does not
claim that treatment will completely eliminate obsessions and
instead emphasizes the benefit of treatment in reducing the distress
associated with these symptoms. It also is unusually clear in
pointing out instances when professional help should be sought.
Another highly rated book was The Shyness & Social Anxiety
Workbook: Proven Techniques for Overcoming Your Fears
(Antony & Swinson, 2000), which presents a step-by-step guide
for implementing cognitive-behavioral strategies for social phobia.
The book makes clear that its approach is CBT but also acknowl-
edges relevant biological factors and treatments (i.e., evolutionary
perspective, genetics, pharmacotherapy). It includes an unusually
good section on diagnosis, including differential diagnosis, and
makes it clear that accurate diagnosis may require professional
consultation. The book also includes a discussion in the last
chapter about identifying and correcting the factors that may
interfere with progress.
The five top-rated self-help books shared several features. They
all covered specific anxiety disorders (three covered OCD and two
covered social phobia), they were written from a CBT orientation,
they had doctoral-level first authors, and they most frequently cited
peer-reviewed journals or the professional literature. In addition,
four of the books were published by New Harbinger Publications
and were written by individuals who are among the top researchers
in their respective areas.
The book that received the lowest rating was How to Win Over
Depression (LaHaye, 1996). LaHaye, coauthor of the popular Left
Behind series of Christian fiction books, is an evangelical Chris-
tian minister. The recommended treatment approach is based
largely on his interpretations of Christian Biblical scriptures, and
the book emphasizes regular prayer as the treatment. LaHaye also
recommends that readers complete a “Personalized Temperament
Analysis,” which he offers for $29.95. Another book that received
a lower rating was Tapping the Healer Within: Using Thought-
Field Therapy to Instantly Conquer Your Fears, Anxieties, and
Emotional Distress (Callahan & Trubo, 2002), which claims that
even severe psychopathology is caused by “blockages” in an
invisible “energy” system within the body and that these condi-
tions could be completely cured with simple, self-administered
techniques that involve tapping on specific parts of the body in a
particular sequence. The book claims that traditional therapy does
not work well because “the problem is not fundamentally in the
brain or nervous system. It is in the thought field” (Callahan &
Trubo, 2002, p. 39). Although there is no systematic research
demonstrating that the approach is effective (in fact, there is
evidence to the contrary; see Pignotti, 2005; Waite & Holder,
2003), the techniques described in the book, known as thought
field therapy, have been aggressively marketed and promoted in
recent years (Gaudiano & Herbert, 2000; Lohr, Hooke, Gist, &
Tolin, 2003; Pignotti, 2005). In fact, 16% (n8) of the top-selling
books in our study were based on some form of “energy therapy.”
All five of the self-help books in our study that received the
lowest ratings shared the characteristic of being based largely on
unorthodox or nonscientific approaches. They also tended to cover
multiple problem areas and to make claims that extended well
beyond the evidence supported by current research. Some of the
authors of these books were not mental health professionals,
tended not to have academic affiliations, and were professional
practitioners or paraprofessionals.
Overall Book Ratings
Table 1 summarizes the book ratings for each of the scale items
for the entire sample, along with the descriptive statistics for each
item. Although a few books were dense and used unnecessary
jargon, most (76%) were judged to be written in an accessible way
for readers. Most authors (70%) clearly discussed the underlying
assumptions that informed their self-help approach.
Overall, 60% of the books were judged to be adequately
grounded in psychological science. However, there was variability
in the degree to which the etiological explanations also were
consistent with current psychological science and theory (e.g.,
Items 5, 6, and 10). Some books failed to discuss etiology at all or
presented the authors’ own idiosyncratic and unsupported theories
about the origins of psychopathology (e.g., sin, perturbations in the
thought field, cellular memory, five major brain systems). In
contrast, others noted that the exact etiologies of the anxiety and
mood disorders remain unclear and are likely multiply determined
(e.g., “depression is not a single problem with a single cause and
a single treatment,” Yapko, 1997, p. xviii). Many books presented
techniques commonly associated with a cognitive behavioral ap-
proach (e.g., cognitive restructuring, relaxation training, behav-
ioral activation, exposure) that have been shown to be effective for
depression and anxiety disorders. Several books emphasized strat-
egies designed to improve interpersonal relationships and func-
tioning. In contrast, other books recommended unorthodox psy-
chological treatments and techniques (e.g., body tapping, self-
hypnosis).
Only 42% of the books provided readers with reasonable ex-
pectations about the potential benefits that could be expected from
the implementation of the self-help techniques. In addition, 32%
inappropriately promised a complete cure after using the self-help
techniques. In contrast, some books provided clear warnings about
the limitations of self-help. For example, Yapko (1997) told read-
541
POPULAR SELF-HELP BOOKS: HOW SCIENTIFIC OR USEFUL?
ers that “this book is no substitute for participating in psychother-
apy with a qualified professional” (p. 2).
Furthermore, only 50% of the books prepared readers for the
possibility of setbacks and failures while using the techniques.
Fewer than half (44%) provided the reader with clear guidance
about seeking professional help when needed. Only a minority of
the books (34%) provided a clear discussion of long-term treat-
ment strategies, even if the self-help strategies recommended in the
book did not prove to be effective for the reader. These findings
suggest that readers are often given overly optimistic expectations
for improvement and then are not properly prepared for dealing
with treatment failures, including how to seek appropriate profes-
sional help. A few books, however, did include chapters on relapse
prevention, long-term treatment maintenance, treatment trouble-
shooting, or referral sources and guidelines for seeking profes-
sional help.
Most books (72%) provided specific guidance for implementing
the self-help techniques. For example, several books were written
in a workbook format and provided reproducible worksheets for
readers to use when implementing the techniques. Although most
books provided adequate guidance for implementing the self-help
techniques, only a minority (24%) provided clear methods for
measuring progress and improvement from the implementation of
the treatment strategies. In other words, little specific guidance
was given to readers on how to determine whether the self-help
techniques they implemented were working. Moreover, only a
minority (36%) of the books provided proper guidance for the
reader to self-diagnose their problems. In most cases, there was an
implicit assumption that the reader already understood his or her
specific problem area and had somehow already arrived at an
accurate clinical diagnosis. Although some books did present
information based on the current Diagnostic and Statistical Man-
ual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; American Psychiatric
Association, 2000) classification system and discussed the some-
times complex issues involved in differential diagnosis, this was
not commonly the case.
Although only a minority of books (18%) were judged to
provide potentially iatrogenic advice, this issue is a major concern
in the literature on self-help programs. Some books advocated the
use of herbal supplements by authors who sometimes were not
qualified medical professionals, and then failed to provide a proper
discussion of potential side effects or contraindications when com-
bined with other common medications. In The Anxiety and Phobia
Workbook (Bourne, 2000), some of the discussions about herbal
supplements appeared questionable, and at times the author
sounded as if he were dispensing medical advice without a license,
for example, when he wrote, “The natural antidepressant SAM-e
. . . is for many people as effective as a prescription SSRI antide-
pressant, such as Prozac, yet it works within a few days (rather
than weeks) with few or no side effects” (p. 31). Other books (e.g.,
Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your
Life, McKay, Fanning, & Davis, 1997) overemphasized the ben-
efits of thought stopping or other distraction techniques, which
have been found to be largely ineffective and may even exacerbate
symptoms (Hannan & Tolin, 2005; Wegner, Schneider, Carter, &
White, 1987). The book Post-Trauma Stress: A Personal Guide to
Reduce the Long-Term Effects and Hidden Emotional Damage
Caused by Violence and Disaster (Parkinson, 2000) recommended
forms of psychological debriefing and forced counseling for vic-
tims of trauma, even though research suggests that these treatments
are inert at best and harmful at worst (McNally, Bryant, & Ehlers,
2003; van Emmerik, Kamphuis, Hulsbosch, & Emmelkamp,
2002). Finally, some books (e.g., Trauma and Recovery: The
Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
by Herman, 1997; Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate
Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences by Levine &
Frederick, 1997; and The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Tech-
niques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms by Williams &
Poijula, 2002) promoted the erroneous idea that traumatic memo-
ries are frequently unconsciously repressed (for a critique, see
McNally et al., 2003) and that certain symptoms are an indication
of abuse even when the person may not have an actual memory of
a traumatic event.
Relationships Among Subscales
The five rating subscales were all strongly intercorrelated, par-
ticularly Psychological Science, Specific Guidance, and Overall
Usefulness (rs.65 to .82, p.001). The Iatrogenic Advice
subscale was also strongly inversely correlated with the Overall
Usefulness (r.72, p.001) and Psychological Science (r
.54, p.001) subscales, but it was less highly correlated with the
other subscales. The Reasonable Expectations and Specific Guid-
ance subscales also were strongly correlated (r.61, p.001).
Score Comparisons Based on Book Characteristics
We compared rating scores on the basis of book characteristics
(having a CBT orientation vs. having a non-CBT orientation,
having an eclectic orientation vs. having a noneclectic orientation,
covering one primary disorder or problem area vs. covering mul-
tiple disorders or problem areas) and primary author characteristics
(having a doctoral degree vs. not having a doctoral degree, having
an academic affiliation vs. not having an academic affiliation,
being a mental health professional vs. being a paraprofessional or
nonprofessional). Because these analyses were considered explor-
atory, and in order to reduce the risk of committing a Type I error
due to multiple comparisons, only total scores were examined.
Books with a CBT orientation (M70.1, SD 15.3) had
significantly higher scores than those with a non-CBT orientation
(M51.6, SD 15.2), t(48) 4.25, p.001, and the effect size
for CBT orientation was substantial (d1.21). In addition, total
scores were significantly higher if the primary author was a rec-
ognized mental health professional (M64.9, SD 16.8) than if
the author was a paraprofessional or nonprofessional (M50.7,
SD 17.8), t(48) 2.27, p.03, and again the effect size was
substantial (d.82). Also, books focusing on one specific disor-
der or problem area (M65.5, SD 18.0) had significantly
higher ratings than those that covered multiple problems (M
54.2, SD 14.4), t(48) 2.09, p.04, with a moderately large
effect size (d.69). Finally, the total score difference for type of
degree, favoring authors holding doctoral degrees (M65.0,
SD 17.4) over authors not holding doctoral degrees (M54.7,
SD 17.0), approached significance, t(48) 1.85, p.07, d
.66. Tests of eclectic orientation and the academic or research
status of the author were not significant ( ps.10).
542 REDDING, HERBERT, FORMAN, AND GAUDIANO
Discussion
The present study assessed the scientific grounding and useful-
ness, as judged by expert psychologists, of 50 currently popular
self-help books designed for the self-treatment of anxiety, depres-
sion, or trauma. We evaluated the extent to which popular self-help
books provide advice that is consistent with psychological science
and in a form that consumers can readily use for self-diagnosis and
treatment. Four key findings emerged from the results. First, there
were strong relationships between the various rating subscales, so
that books that were strong on one dimension tended to be strong
on the other dimensions as well. Of particular note, books that
provided specific guidance also tended to be among the best in
promoting appropriate expectations about the benefits that could
be derived from the self-help treatments. Second, only 50% of the
books prepared readers for the possibility of setbacks and failures,
and only 42% of the books provided readers with reasonable
overall expectations about the potential benefits that could be
expected from the self-help techniques. Moreover, 18% of the
books provided potentially iatrogenic advice. Third, although a
majority of the books (72%) provided specific guidance for im-
plementing the self-help techniques, only 36% provided proper
guidance for self-diagnosis, and only 24% provided clear and
specific methods for measuring treatment progress. Fourth, the
books that received the highest ratings tended to be books having
a cognitive behavioral orientation, books written by mental health
professionals and those having a doctoral degree, and books fo-
cusing on specific problems. In contrast, the books that received
the lowest ratings were frequently written by authors who were not
mental health professionals (and who did not have academic
affiliations), often covered multiple problem areas, were based
largely on unorthodox or non-evidence-based treatment ap-
proaches, and tended to make extravagant claims not supported by
current research.
Implications of Findings
It is widely accepted by both professionals and consumers that
bibliotherapy can be useful for a range of psychological problems.
The present findings confirm that many self-help books are indeed
grounded in the scientific literature and are readily accessible to
the lay reader. Nevertheless, bibliotherapy is limited by two prin-
cipal factors. First, our findings demonstrate that books targeted at
specific, circumscribed problems tend to be of higher quality, yet
comorbidity and multidimensionality of problems are the norm
rather than the exception in psychopathology (Scogin et al., 1990).
Because most empirical research on psychological interventions
focuses on a single diagnostic entity such as major depressive
disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, it follows that the more
problem areas covered in a book, the less likely it is to be based on
scientific research. When possible, however, self-help books
should explicitly address commonly co-occurring conditions and
problems and how they might affect the particular intervention
program.
The second factor limiting the utility of self-help books is the
paucity of research directly examining their effectiveness. Appar-
ently, only two of the books we reviewed have themselves been
evaluated for their effectiveness as self-help books: Burns’s (2000)
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (see Burns, 2000) and Ellis
and Harper’s (1997) A Guide to Rational Living (see Den Boer et
al., 2004). Even treatments that are efficacious when administered
by a professional may not be effective when self-administered
(Rosen, 1987). The failure of a self-help book to alleviate symp-
toms may discourage some consumers from seeking potentially
useful treatment from a mental health professional, as it may lead
them to mistakenly believe that psychological treatment is inef-
fective.
Our findings revealed that books written from a cognitive be-
havioral perspective tended to be rated more highly by expert
psychologists. This result is consistent with bibliotherapy effec-
tiveness studies showing that CBT-based readings tend to be more
effective (Pardeck, 1993), as well as research on psychotherapy
effectiveness showing that CBT programs are predominant among
those labeled as “efficacious, well-established” treatments
(Chambless & Ollendick, 2001; Kopta, 1999). However, these
findings must be interpreted with caution. The superiority of
CBT-based books in our ratings undoubtedly reflects in part the
fact that more research has been conducted on CBT than on
interventions derived from other models (e.g., psychodynamic
psychotherapy), as well as the fact that CBT approaches naturally
lend themselves to a self-help format by providing concrete, spe-
cific techniques that can be readily implemented by consumers.
Although acknowledging the overall stronger scientific foundation
of CBT approaches for use in treating mood, anxiety, and trauma-
related disorders, we cannot conclude that non-CBT approaches
are necessarily inferior. Indeed, when CBT approaches have been
directly compared with alternative programs, the latter often per-
form comparably (e.g., Elkin et al., 1989). More research is needed
on the effectiveness of bibliotherapy, regardless of specific theo-
retical orientation.
The findings suggest guidelines for authors in writing self-help
books. First, authors would do well to be mindful of the features
that characterize the best self-help books. First and foremost, in
keeping with the principle of premium non nocere (first do no
harm), authors should be especially careful to avoid suggesting
practices that have been shown to be harmful. Although there is a
widespread assumption among mental health clinicians that psy-
chotherapy is benign, growing evidence suggests that some inter-
ventions may actually prove harmful in some cases (Lilienfeld,
2007). For example, several studies have found iatrogenic effects
of posttrauma debriefing (van Emmerik et al., 2002). Self-help
books should not advocate interventions unless and until research
demonstrates convincingly the conditions under which they may
be useful. Second, authors should address issues related to differ-
ential diagnosis, ongoing self-assessment, relapse prevention, and
when to seek professional help. They should provide clear, user-
friendly guidelines for implementing self-help techniques. Finally,
as much as possible, authors should ground their approaches in the
best available scientific evidence. Although it may often be useful
to bring to bear one’s clinical experience in describing interven-
tions, authors should be aware of the limitations associated with
overreliance on clinical judgment (Garb, 1998; Herbert, Neeren, &
Lowe, 2007).
Our results also suggest some general heuristics for consumers
and practitioners to use when selecting self-help books for them-
selves or their clients. Our findings suggest that the best books tend
to focus on a limited range of problems, are authored by doctoral-
level mental health professionals (often with academic affilia-
543
POPULAR SELF-HELP BOOKS: HOW SCIENTIFIC OR USEFUL?
tions), avoid claims that appear too good to be true, and provide
specific guidance for implementing the self-help techniques and
for monitoring treatment progress. None of these factors are fail
proof indicators of quality, and with the exception of exaggerated
claims, exceptions can be found along each of these dimensions.
Nevertheless, the more of these features that characterize a given
book, the more likely the book is to be scientifically sound and
useful. Given the wide variability in the quality of self-help liter-
ature, the consumer would be wise to adopt the cautious stance of
caveat emptor.
Limitations
The current study has several limitations. First, the particular
choice of items included in the rating scale necessarily reflects to
some degree the values of the investigators. Although any such
study will be colored to some extent by the researchers’ values,
several factors increase our confidence in our ratings. We began
the study without an a priori agenda concerning self-help books. In
constructing our rating scale, we examined the psychological lit-
erature on bibliotherapy for factors that have been associated with
the quality of self-help books. What emerged were general themes
that are consistent with scientifically based practice and that we
believe are unlikely to be controversial, except perhaps to those
who reject the very idea that psychological interventions should be
scientifically informed. In addition, the strong interrater reliability,
inter-item consistency within the subscales, and intercorrelations
among the subscales all support the validity of our rating strategy.
Second, our study was limited to books on mood, anxiety, and
trauma-related disorders. These disorders have a relatively robust
research literature, and it is not clear how the findings would apply
to other conditions for which the scientific literature is less exten-
sive. Moreover, a large percentage of popular self-help books are
more inspirational in tone and focus on more general issues of
well-being, motivation, or spiritual enhancement. There is even
less scientific research on such topics, further limiting the gener-
alizability of our findings. Nevertheless, some of the key features
associated with the best books in the present study (e.g., avoiding
exaggerated or otherwise dubious claims) are likely to be applica-
ble even to these books.
Third, although we assessed the overall accessibility of the
books to lay readers, we did not conduct a comprehensive assess-
ment of how characteristics of the reader may interact with the
content of the books. Factors such as the consumer’s age, educa-
tion level, level of motivation, level of psychological mindedness,
religious and spiritual orientation, cultural background, and readi-
ness for change may have an impact on the effectiveness of
bibliotherapy (Campbell & Smith, 2003). Degree of psychopathol-
ogy may also affect responsiveness to self-help books. For exam-
ple, recent studies have found that severity of depression moder-
ates the effects of treatment, such that individuals with severe
depression respond differentially to alternative treatments, whereas
those with less severe depression do not (Dimidjian et al., 2006;
Luty et al., 2007). Research is needed to evaluate whether the
degree of pathology likewise affects differential responsivity to
self-help bibliotherapy. Research is also needed to evaluate
whether subgroups of consumers can be identified who respond
better to alternative self-help formats, including computer-assisted
or Internet-based interventions, audio- or videotape formats, or
formats in which self-help is combined with minimal therapist
contact (Hirai & Clum, 2006).
Finally, as noted above, we did not directly evaluate the efficacy
of these books in a self-help format. Although we hypothesize that
our ratings may be correlated with actual effectiveness, such
conclusions should not be assumed and must await considerable
further research.
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Received March 19, 2007
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Accepted July 23, 2007
545
POPULAR SELF-HELP BOOKS: HOW SCIENTIFIC OR USEFUL?
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PurposeThis study aimed to summarise the nutrition and food-related content of treatment manuals for adults with eating disorders (EDs) and assess the degree to which this information conforms with current guidelines and literature.Methods Treatment manuals for adults with an ED were identified by conducting an online search of Internet book dealer Amazon and University of Sydney library catalogue as per methods used in previous reviews of self-help patient resources. The nutrition and food-related content of these manuals was extracted and reviewed independently by two reviewers using a criteria based on current best evidence to date regarding dietetic treatment for EDs.ResultsTwenty-two manuals met inclusion criteria, 20 (91%) of which contained some degree of nutrition and food-related content. Two manuals (9%) included content written by a dietitian, six (27%) included citation of dietetic literature to support the recommendations made and eight (36%) recommended a dietitian be consulted as part of a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. Thirteen manuals (60%) contained nutrition and food-related information not substantiated by current evidence.Conclusion It is common for treatment manuals for EDs to contain nutrition and food-related content. However, most of the authors of the 22 manuals identified did not appear to collaborate with a dietitian in writing this content or cite peer-reviewed literature to substantiate dietary advice given. Consistent with current clinical practice guidelines, greater collaboration between dietitians and clinicians is required to develop, evaluate and disseminate evidence-based approaches to dietetic management.Level of evidenceLevel V, narrative review.
... nvironment, a need that most school unfortunately do not fulfill, and this need is less fulfilled in the children with intellectual disabilities compared to that in normal children. Characters and situations in the book can facilitate the fulfillment of this need. It also helps them discover new ways of living and interacting with peers and adults (Redding et. al 2008). ...
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Background The present study was aimed at developing a grounded theory on how bibliotherapy influences children with intellectual disabilities. Method Participants were selected among the students of four primary schools in Tehran. They received, for 3 years, a special bibliotherapy intervention provided by the public library in cooperation with a team of experts; The bibliotherapy sessions were held once a week during the academic year. 10 teachers, 4 mothers, and 4 agents (librarians) were selected using a purposeful sampling method, and were interviewed using in-depth interviews. Result Data analysis was performed using the grounded theory. ‘Improvement of skills necessary for adjustment to disability’ was identified at the core of grounded theory. Conclusion Bibliotherapy, as a guided learning method and an add-on therapy, based on an accurate identification of intellectually disabled children’s needs and behaviors, providing them with supplemental education materials, empathy, and cooperation among experts from different fields.
... This list also may benefit those with new onset anxiety in light of our finding that low anxiety participants had less experience with such sources of information compared with high anxiety participants. Providers may consult empirical reviews of self-help books (e.g., Redding, Herbert, Forman, & Gaudiano, 2008) or the Veteran's Self-Help Resources (available at http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/self_ help.asp), but providers should keep in mind that these resources are not specific to older adults. ...
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Objective: We sought to learn where older Veterans seek information about anxiety and coping. Due to increasing use of technology in health care, we also explored benefits and barriers of using technology to teach coping skills. Methods: Twenty Veterans (M = 69.5 years, SD = 7.3) participated in semi-structured interviews in which we inquired about where they seek information about anxiety. We explored quantitative and qualitative differences for Veterans with high versus low anxiety. In follow-up focus groups, we examined opinions about learning coping skills using technology. Results: Though Veterans primarily named health care professionals as sources of information about anxiety, online searches and reading books were frequently mentioned. Reported benefits of using technology were convenience and standardized instruction of coping skills. Barriers included lack of interaction and frustration with technology usability. Conclusion: Older Veterans use multiple sources, heavily rely on interpersonal sources (e.g., professionals, friends), and employ varied search strategies regarding how to cope with anxiety. Using technology to teach coping skills was generally acceptable to older Veterans. Clinical Implications: Health care professionals could guide patients towards credible online and book sources. Providing instruction about using technology may help older adults use technology to learn coping skills.
... showing that more detailed, more specific self-help manuals are more effective than generalized ones (Hellström & Öst, 1995;Mains & Scogin, 2003). Similarly, self-help books targeting clearly circumscribed problems tend to attract higher quality ratings (Redding, Herbert, Forman, & Gaudiano, 2008). ...
... Second, there is concern about the information that is often communicated to readers as well as the information that is omitted in self-help books. In an expert review of 50 popular self-help books, Redding, Herbert, Forman, and Gaudiano (2008) found that only 42% of authors provided reasonable expectations about treatment outcome and 32% of authors inaccurately promised a complete recovery. Moreover, only 50% of the popular self-help books included a discussion of the potential risks of self-help treatment, such as a temporary increase in symptoms, and only 44% of the popular self-help books included a discussion of when the patient should seek professional help. ...
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Self-help/bibliotherapy includes information, explanations, exercises, and treatments that are completed with little or no assistance from a therapist. Research shows that self-help approaches are effective for treating emotional disorders, especially when combined with brief regular therapist contact. Self-help approaches are commonly accepted by both therapists and patients, and have the potential of increasing the accessibility and cost-effectiveness of psychology treatments. This entry describes empirically supported self-help books, and discusses the research evidence concerning several popular self-help books for anxiety disorders and depression. We discuss the costs and benefits of incorporating self-help approaches into the treatment of psychological disorders. Keywords: bibliotherapy; psychopathology; self-help; therapy
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Do you want to use bibliotherapy with clients but wonder about the size and mechanism of effectiveness? The authors report a meta-analysis of 29 outcome studies of cognitive forms of bibliotherapy for depression. Seventeen studies with stronger research designs (pretest-posttest waiting list control group) yielded a respectable effect size of 0.77, considered the best estimate of effect size from this study. This result compares favorably with outcomes from individual psychotherapy. In light of the substantial positive effects associated with bibliotherapy for depression, the authors discuss clinically relevant questions related to the use of cognitive bibliotherapy. These include why practitioners might consider the use of this technique, which individuals can benefit from this approach, and how professionals can structure care.