By Brian A. Zaboski, John C. Norcross, Ph.D., & John W. Santrock, Ph.D.
Self-help books continue to proliferate on bookstore shelves and internet web pages (Norcross, 2000). Thousands of new self-help books are published annually, accounting for an estimated two billion dollars in sales per year, in an unregulated industry (www.marketresearch.com). Sadly, 95% or more of those books are published without any scientific evidence of their effectiveness as stand-alone, self-help materials (Rosen, 2004).
The popularity and availability of self-help materials raise an important question: Which of the avalanche of resources are meritorious? Not a week passes in which most psychologists aren’t asked to nominate a book for a particular disorder or challenge. And many psychologists oblige with a seasoned recommendation; in fact, most practitioners will prescribe self-help materials to their own patients for therapeutic gains (Norcross, 2006).
Over the past 18 years, our colleagues and we have sought to establish an expert consensus on the value of self-help materials (Santrock et al., 1994; Norcross et al., 2012). The most recent of our dozen national studies, now involving nearly 5,000 psychologists, were conducted through the membership of the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology. In this article, we summarize the frequency of psychologists’ recommendation of self-help materials to their patients and then identify the top 50 self-help books for particular mental disorder sand life challenges.
By way of review, surveys were sent in fall 2011 to Registrants across the United States. The last four online surveys that included self-help books, autobiographies, and movies produced an overall 15.7% return rate. The return rate for self-help book surveys alone was slightly higher (18.6%). Registrants rated only those books with which they were familiar on a 5-point, Likert-type scale: +2 extremely good, +1 moderately good, 0 average, -1 moderately bad, and -2 extremely bad.
Registrants were asked, “During the past 12 months, to what percentage of your patients/clients did you recommend” a self-help/support group, a self-help book, an autobiography, a film or movie, an Internet site/web page, and an online self-help program. The first two columns of Table 1 display the percentages of psychologists in 2002 (N ≈ 1,229) and 2011 (N ≈ 1,306) in 2011 recommending six categories of self-help resources to clients. As seen there, there was a large increase over the years in the percentage of psychologists recommending internet sites. Psychologists recommending online programs, not previously assessed, also has become fairly common practice these days. However, autobiographies are still not widely recommended with only about one-fourth of psychologists routinely recommending them. The samples differed over the years as members of APA were used in 2002 while members of the National Register were used in 2011; nonetheless, approximately 80% of National Register respondents were simultaneously APA members. Possibly the small difference in samples could explain the discrepancy in the frequency of recommendation seen between 2002 and 2011.
The second half of Table 1 presents the mean and median percentage of clients for whom Registrants reported recommending each self-help resource. Clients were most likely to be given recommendations for self-help books (roughly 27% of clients), internet sites (23%), and self-help groups (16%). Again, autobiographies were less frequently prescribed by psychologists.
Table 2 presents the highest rated 50 self-help books across the years in the national studies. The mean ratings for the items were used to identify the top-rated resources. To make the list, the books required at least 20 psychologists’ ratings.
The top-rated book across all of the surveys was For Yourself by Barbach with a mean rating of 1.87. In fact, three out of the top five highest rated self-help books focused on sexuality. Psychologists rated a total of 18 books with a mean of 1.50 or higher and 38 books with a mean greater than 1.40.
Although expert consensus cannot substitute for controlled research on the efficacy and safety of these self-help books, it is definitely superior to individual preferences, marketing claims, and best-seller lists. Until and if such research comes along, we believe our surveys constitute useful guides for those choosing to embrace and prescribe self-help.
Note From the Editor: We recently published three articles on self-help resources in mental health inThe Register Report. The articles were based on a series of surveys of psychologists, including Registrants, and listed respondents’ highest-rated self-help books, autobiographies, and films.
The surveys asked psychologists to rate hundreds of self-help resources. Neither the authors nor the National Register intended to imply endorsement of any of the self-help resources listed in the surveys. A number of Registrants, including one of the authors, expressed concern that one of the top-rated self-help books, The Courage to Heal, has been involved in lawsuits and implicated in false memories. Other Registrants have written to the authors and the National Register stating that a particular film or autobiography has not proven suitable for some clients.
The National Register does not endorse or recommend any self-help resource included in the series of articles. We encourage Registrants to independently evaluate any self-help book, autobiography, or film prior to recommending the resource to patients.
Brian A. Zaboski graduated from The University of Scranton with a B.S. in Psychology. He plans to attend a Ph.D. program in psychology where he can pursue his major research interests in clinical and quantitative psychology
John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, is Professor of Psychology and Distinguished University Fellow at the University of Scranton, editor of Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, and a clinical psychologist in part-time practice. Dr. Norcross was a member of the National Register Board of Directors from 2002-2009.
John Santrock is a professor of psychology in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. Santrock is a leading author of psychology texts, including Life-Span Development (13th Ed.), Child Development (13th Ed.), and Adolescence (14th Ed.). His research has focused on the effects of divorce on children.
Norcross, J. C. (2000). Here comes the self-help revolution in mental health. Psychotherapy, 37, 370-377.
Norcross, J. C. (2006). Integrating self-help into psychotherapy: 16 practical suggestions. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 683-693.
Norcross, J. C., Campbell, L. F., Grohol, J. M., Santrock, J. W. Selagea, F., & Sommer, R. L. (2012). Self-help that works (4th edition). New York: Oxford University Press.
Rosen, G. M. (2004). Remembering the 1978 and 1990 task forces on self-help therapies. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60, 111-113.
Santrock, J. W., Minnett, A. M., & Campbell, B. D. (1994). The authoritative guide to self-help books. New York: Guilford