Self-Help: Popular, but Effective?

The number of self-help books, organizations, and online support groups has mushroomed in recent years. The range of topics they cover varies -- but their impact is clear.

From the WebMD Archives

Alex has read more than a dozen self-help books, recognizing that only some of the advice works for him.

One recommendation that has profoundly touched his life comes from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It encourages readers to visualize their funeral, imagining the type of eulogy they'd like to hear from people in various areas of their lives.

The exercise constantly replays in Alex's mind, affecting his daily behavior and decisions. He makes sure to volunteer for his local parish when he has the time, at least tries to acknowledge homeless people who approach him (even if he doesn't always give money), and takes a deep breath when someone in traffic cuts him off. "I restrain myself from overacting," says the 31-year-old energy engineer, noting he doesn't want to be remembered as an angry person.

Self-Help Popularity Boom

Alex is far from being alone in his reliance on advice from self-help books. The genre is so popular that The New York Times gives advice publications its own category in its best-seller list, distinguishable from fiction, nonfiction, and children's books. The current top hardcover advice book, The South Beath Diet, by Arthur Agatson, MD, has been a best seller for 57 weeks.

The inclination for self-help also appears to go beyond books, as the number of self-help organizations and online support groups has mushroomed in recent years. In 1986, the American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse had 332 associations in its roster. Now, it has more than 1,100 groups that meet either face to face or online.

To further illustrate the popularity of self-help, John C. Norcross, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, says studies indicate that at least 18% of Americans will visit at least one self-help group meeting in their lifetime, and at least 75% to 80% of all people with access to the web have already gone there for health information.

In fact, the help-yourself movement has become so pervasive and accepted that most psychologists recommend self-help resources to their patients as an adjunct to psychotherapy, adds Norcross, who has authored his own self-help book, The Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources and Mental Health.

Why Seek Self-Help?

A glance at several best-seller lists, including The New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher's Weekly suggests that concerns about weight loss and diet (The South Beach Diet), finding the meaning of life (The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren), and pregnancy (Belly Laughs: The Naked Truth About Pregnancy and Childbirth, by Jenny McCarthy) are some motives for people to buy self-help books.

On the other hand, people who look for self-help groups or online support groups often do so because they want to connect with others who are going through the same problems, says Edward J. Madara, director of the American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse. The most commonly shared troubles, he says, have to do with illness, addiction, bereavement, disabilities, and parenting.

Online, people who look for health information typically seek mental health topics, including how to deal with anxiety and depression, how to handle relationships, and how to manage kids, says Norcross.

Andrew Weil, MD, author of the self-help book, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, has his own theory about the tremendous growth of the do-it-yourself industry.

"Our culture lacks a sense of purpose," he explains. "I think, in some ways, we have too much in the material realm, and not enough in terms of community and spiritual health."

Weil points out that the drive toward self-help may be part of a natural human instinct to look for fulfillment. In his book, he encourages readers not only to eat well for physical health, but to take time out for themselves and do volunteer work to bring spiritual and emotional satisfaction to their lives.

Indeed, both Madara and Norcross agree that the breakdown of family and neighborhood networks have caused many people to feel isolated and look for new sources of connection.

Effective Group Support

For 10 years, Claire Patterson endured the disease trigeminal neuralgia on her own. The disease causes severe facial pain, caused by a disorder in the nerve that affects the lips, nose, eyes, forehead, and jaw.

The pain can become so intense that Patterson cut off most social ties even though she was a public relations professional in a major metropolitan area. Eventually, the stabbing aches prevented her from eating independently or talking, and she had to communicate with doctors using a pencil.

While in the hospital, Patterson met, for the first time, another patient who had the same ailment. The experience, and her doctor's encouragement, had such a profound impact on her that when she became better after surgery, she decided to establish a self-help group for people with the disorder.

Thirteen years later, Patterson heads a national organization that promotes awareness of the disease and spearheads research into pathology and treatments. The Trigeminal Neuralgia Association (TNA) now hosts 70 support groups nationwide, and assists similar groups in other countries.

The growth of her organization, and seeing people get community support for their suffering has boosted Patterson's self-esteem.

"It taught me the lesson that you need to assume control of whatever illness you have, and also to go to whatever lengths you have to, to get the best information you can," she says.

Do Self-Help Resources Work?

Patterson's experience appears to be in line with scientific research on support groups. According to Norcross, three large, federally funded studies on such groups for substance abuse have shown that meetings are as effective or nearly as effective in treating addicts as professional psychotherapy.

Studies have also shown that people who go to medical self-help groups tend to feel better, comply more with treatment, improve in health, and their families tend to be more involved and more knowledgeable about their condition.

Doctors have also recommended online support groups, at the very least to help people retain anonymity. It has been noted, however, that communication through the Internet may not be as effective as face-to-face contact.

When it comes to books, there is little evidence that advice publications work for people. Yet positive testimonials abound.

Duskin is a 31-year-old computer programmer who speaks enthusiastically about Weil's teachings. After long days at work, he used to get take-out or have food delivered to his place, and then plop himself on the couch, watching TV. Now, he has cut down his work hours, searches for pure or natural foods, cooks his meals, brings fresh flowers into his home, visits art museums, and generally seeks activities that invigorate his body and mind.

"I'm feeling better about myself psychologically and emotionally," says Duskin. "It helps me deal better with my busy life."

Self-help books and groups have certainly made an impact on American society, with the number of resources growing, and the interest in them expanding just as exponentially. While scientists have more research to do on their effectiveness, people aren't waiting for the results. They're figuring it out for themselves.

Show Sources

SOURCES: The New York Times web site. Barnes & Noble web site. American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse. John C. Norcross, PHD, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, Penn., author, The Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources and Mental Health. USA Today web site. Publisher's Weekly web site. Edward J. Madara, director of the American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse. Andrew Weil, MD, author, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. Claire Patterson, founder, Trigeminal Neuralgia Association. WebMD Live Events Transcript: "The Importance of Joining a Cancer Support Group with Selma Schimmel."

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