A dark silhouette of a man reading a book in a library. Image from Pixabay under Pexels license.

Self-help books have continued to gain popularity in recent decades, but there is mixed evidence of how these books are helpful for people, especially for those experiencing mental health challenges. To gain a better understanding of how individuals use these books, A.E. Gwynne did intensive interviews with people experiencing depression who regularly read such literature.

When asked why they turned to self-help books in the first place, interviewees typically described wanting a “quick fix” or “silver bullet”. Sarah is an example. She believed reading a self-help book on mental health would, “be like going to one of those churches where they put their hands on your head, and all of a sudden…a miracle!” 

Many interviewees described changing their expectations of these books as they read more. In particular, they described the quest for books that could teach them only one thing that could potentially aid them in their lives. They also realized that the books were only an aid and they needed to do the work of helping themselves. Aaron explained, “That’s what self-help means. It means help yourself. The book’s helping you, but you’re still doing the lifting.” Beyond personal improvement, respondents also valued how self-help books allowed them to understand that others are experiencing the same struggles as they were. 

While readers were generally enthusiastic about self-help books, some admitted that reading them sometimes caused them to experience shame, disappointment, fear, confusion, and anger. This less-than-positive effect was generally attributed to the fact that reading was sometimes hindered by the very symptoms they were experiencing. Monique explained, “When you’re depressed you don’t really feel like reading. I think coming out of it, that’s when you read.”

While self-help books can be helpful for some, this research highlights how reading them is often a mixed bag and rarely an instant fix. People seeking help strictly from self-help books may isolate themselves and prevent them from connecting with organizations, programs, and professionals with expertise in dealing with addressing the root issues of mental health.