What’s Bibliotherapy? Hi podcast fans,David and Rhonda discuss and old controversy: Can a self-help book can really help? Or will you need psychotherapy and / or an antidepressant if you are seriously depressed?
I (DB) wrote up the following overview of bibliotherapy research prior to today’s recording with Rhonda. I hope you find it interesting!
I have to admit that I’ve never had much respect for self-help books. Many of them seem to be written by narcissistic individuals with pretty superficial ideas who mainly want to promote themselves, and this has been my strong bias as well. When I pick one up in a bookstore, I nearly always get immediately turned off. And I get a flood of them in the mail as well, from authors asking for an endorsement. I have a policy of not doing book or product endorsements—it’s the easiest way to say no.
And I never thought of my book, Feeling Good: The new Mood Therapy, as a self-help book. My idea was that people receiving cognitive therapy could read it between sessions as a way of speeding up their recovery, so that the therapist could do the individual work and not have to do so much teaching about the basic concepts, like my list of ten cognitive distortions.
But at the same time, shortly after the book was released, I began getting letters, and later on emails, from individuals who said they book had actually caused them to recover from pretty severe depression. In fact, over the years, I would guess I’ve received more than ten thousand letters or emails like that, and probably way more than that, maybe even fifty thousand.
Still, it had not occurred to me that it might actually be a self-help book, in spite of the fact that lots of the people who wrote me said the book had helped them much more than the treatments they’d received over the years.
One day a colleague asked if I’d seen the article about my book in the New York Times. Apparently, Dr. Forrest Scogin, a research psychologist from the University of Alabama Medical Center, had studied the effects of reading a self-help book on patients seeking treatment for moderate to severe depression. In a nutshell, their studies indicated that simply reading Feeling Good may help some patients overcome depression and may help to prevent future relapses as well. This finding was a shock, but was not entirely unexpected due to all the testimonials I’d been received from people who’d read the book.
In their first study, Dr. Forest Scogin and his colleagues told patients seeking treatment for depression that they’d be placed on a four-week waiting list before beginning treatment. Half of the patients were given a copy of either my Feeling Good or a self-help book on depression by Dr. Peter Lewinsohn called Up from Depression. The researchers suggested that the patients could read their book while they were waiting for their first appointment with the psychiatrist.
The other half of the patients who were placed on the four-week waiting list did not receive a copy a self-help book. Both groups of patients were contacted each week by a research assistant who administered a test to assess the severity of depression. The goal of course was to find out if there were any changes in depression in any of the patients.
The results of the study were interesting. Approximately two-thirds of the patients who received one of the self-help books improved or recovered from depression during the four weeks, even though they received no other treatment with drugs or psychotherapy. In fact, they improved to such an extent that most of them did not even need any further treatment. In contrast, the patients who did not receive one of the books failed to improve during the four-week waiting period. As far as I know, this was the first time that the anti-depressant effects of a self-help book had ever been documented in carefully controlled research study published in a scientific journal.
Then the researchers did a number of additional experiments. First, they gave a copy of one of the two self-help books to the patients in the second group who had not improved. They asked them to wait four more weeks before beginning treatment, but suggested they read the book during their wait. Two-thirds of them also improved and did not need further treatment. This study was published in the medical journal, Gerontologist.
Some critics challenged the study, arguing that the improvement in the patients who received the self-help book might have simply been a placebo effect. In other words, maybe it was just the reading, and the expectation of recovery, that helped, as opposed to the ideas and techniques described in the books.
To test this, the investigators studied a new group of patients who were asked to read a “placebo” book while waiting for treatment. The researchers chose a classic book by Victor Frankl called…