Bibliotherapy (self-help books)

Our rating
Books on cognitive behaviour therapy 1 Smiley: This treatment is promising and may be useful. It has some evidence to support it, but more evidence is needed to be sure it works.
Other books Question mark: This treatment has not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.

What is it?

Bibliotherapy involves reading books or using computer programs to get information on how to overcome emotional problems. Bibliotherapy tells the person exactly what to do, and provides homework exercises so that the person can put that knowledge into practice. Most bibliotherapy uses cognitive behaviour therapy (see entry for cognitive behaviour therapy). Bibliotherapy is a self-help treatment, but it can also be done under the supervision of a professional who may check in occasionally to see how the patient is going.

How does it work?

Self-help books contain structured programs for their readers to follow. The reader learns about specific techniques to help manage depression, and then can put these into practice in their life. The information and programs provided in self-help books are often similar to what a therapist would provide if the person sought help face to face. Most bibliotherapy uses techniques from cognitive behaviour therapy, which is considered one of the best treatments for depression. These techniques show people how thoughts, feelings and behaviours are associated with depression.

Is it effective?

Many studies have found that self-help books can be effective at reducing depression in people with mild to moderate symptoms, and that it works better than no treatment. Some studies have found that bibliotherapy can be of similar effectiveness to group therapy or individual therapy. Bibliotherapy has not been researched as a treatment for people with severe depression.

Are there any disadvantages?

Bibliotherapy may be unhelpful if a person diagnoses themselves incorrectly and then gives themselves the wrong treatment. Some people may also find it difficult to complete the treatment without any outside assistance or motivation. Also, some books may be difficult to follow for people who don’t have strong reading skills.

Where do you get it?

Most bookshops have self-help depression books available. They can also be purchased from online retailers. Two common self-help books are Feeling Good (Burns, 1980) and Control Your Depression (Lewinsohn and others, 1986). Beating the Blues (Tanner and Ball, 1989) is an Australian version.. 

Recommendation

Bibliotherapy can be helpful for people with mild to moderate depression. It is a good idea to check with a professional (such as a GP or psychologist) before commencing treatment to discuss if bibliotherapy is right for you. It is best to use a tested book which uses cognitive behavioural therapy.

Key references

  • Cuijpers, P. Bibliotherapy in unipolar depression: a meta-analysis. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 1997; 28(2): 139-147.
  • Gregory RJ, Canning SS, Lee TW, Wise JC. Cognitive bibliotherapy for depression: a meta-analysis. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 2004; 35: 275-280.

Last reviewed and updated: 1 December 2016