Self-help books: Read your way to happiness? Don’t knock it!

Self-help is different these days, and it’s starting to look like a sane and humane option in the face of economic crisis and uncertain futures
  • @louisechunn

Self-help books – they’re a tricky one.

The enduring stereotype is of an endlessly upbeat tone, unrealistic aims, and banal to-do lists, all wrapped up with a snappy title and a multicoloured cover. Straight on to the bestseller list and hidden under the beds of neurotic types with nothing very much wrong with them in the first place. As some critics have said: if they worked, why would people keep buying them? They would have solved the problems long ago. But then, you can’t be a billion-dollar section of the beleaguered publishing industry and not attract some unflattering angles along the way, especially in a reticent culture like ours.

But self-help is different these days, and it’s starting to look like a sane and humane option in the face of economic crisis and uncertain futures. Many of us are feeling under pressure. There’s fraying round our edges. Reports of depression and anxiety are ever increasing – six million is the current estimate – and some experts say that three out of four of those affected are not getting the treatment they need.

The Government had promised to increase access to psychological therapies through a variety of initiatives, but with the new clinical commissioning groups taking over from primary care trusts later this year, many of the associations that deal with this area are doubtful that there will be much change. They’ve been waiting five years, with little to show for it.

So you can see how the idea for Books on Prescription seemed like a good one. Local surgeries and libraries will publicise the titles of 30 self-help books, all readily available in libraries across England. The Department of Health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of GPs are all supportive; only two local authorities have failed to get involved. In Wales, where it has already been in use since 2005, 30,000 self-help books are borrowed every year. Everybody is a winner, right?

Just because there is a lot of dross out there shouldn’t stop us from seeing the huge benefits that can come from the right kind of books, chosen not for their ability to climb the bestseller list, but for their intelligence and insights. For the tomes chosen for the prescription are written by experts. Not motivational speakers, self-promoting “gurus” or journalists looking for an easy project, but eminent psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and so on.

Some of them are just the sort of people who could be saying “keep taking the tablets”, but instead have devised other techniques for dealing with everything from anorexia to OCD, from recovering after child sex abuse to anger management.

I’ll admit: there is a dreary sameness about many of the books; 13 of them kick off with “Overcoming...” Personally, I’d like to have seen a couple of depression memoirs, and one or two from Alain de Botton’s “School of Life” self-help series, which came out of the philosopher’s belief that self-help was an extension of classical philosophy and could be as sophisticated and brilliant as anything Plato and Aristotle could produce. But these are determinedly down-to-earth books, rooted in the day-to-day worries and dips that entangle ordinary people.

The book that is best known is probably Susan Jeffers’s Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Written 26 years ago, it was originally rejected (in the UK where she was living at the time) with the immortal line: “Lady Di could be bicycling nude down the street giving this book away and nobody would read it.” It went on to sell 15 million copies in dozens of countries, and is a self-help classic. It turns down the chattering in its readers’ heads, and works hard to remind us that we all fear what we don’t know – but “90 per cent of what we worry about will never happen”.

Miranda McKearney, the chief executive of the Reading Agency charity which is running the scheme, has said that “there is growing evidence that shows that self-help reading can help people with certain mental health conditions to get better”. And recent clinical trials have shown that using them over a year led to lower levels of depression.

On their own, self-help books are only part of the story. If you accept that there are healthier ways of dealing with worries than denial or distraction, you might want to go one step further. Not to the drugs that are needed in serious cases of mental illness, but to the talking therapies. Psychotherapist Philippa Perry spoke good sense at a talk with self-help writer Oliver Burkeman on the efficacy of self-help vs therapy. “A good psychotherapist,” she claimed, “is better than a self-help book, and a good self-help book is better than a bad self-help book. But a bad therapist is worse than any of them.”

It’s not easy to find good therapy – or you may not even think that’s what’s called for. Which brings us back to the printed word. Good advice can be helpful. If we reject it because it comes under the mantle of self help, we could be missing out on something that could, even just a little bit, change the way we see the world, and our place in it.

Louise Chunn is the former editor of ‘Psychologies’ magazine

Twitter: @LouiseChunn