Bibliotherapy (self-help books)

Our rating
Books on cognitive behaviour therapy 2 smilies: This treatment is useful. It is supported by scientific evidence as effective, but the evidence is not as strong.
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). 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. The treatment is self-help, although a professional may ring the person periodically to check how they are going.

How does it work?

People follow a detailed structured program from the book. The person is able to put into practice the techniques that a therapist would provide if the person sought help face to face. Most bibliotherapy uses cognitive behaviour therapy.

Is it effective?

There have been over 35 studies on the effect of bibliotherapy on depression. In general, it works better than no treatment and can be as helpful as therapy provided by a professional.

Adolescents, adults and elderly people all seem to be helped, although the number of studies in each of these categories is small. As yet, there have been no trials to demonstrate bibliotherapy is helpful 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. Bibliotherapy has not been tested in people with severe clinical depression. A high level of reading ability is needed for some of the self-help books.

Where do you get it?

Most bookshops have self-help depression books available. They can also be ordered over the internet. See the Books & Reports section for a short list of self-help books. Computer and web-based programs are also available directly to the public.


People with mild to moderate depression might like to try one of the tested books. It may be useful to consult a mental health professional to confirm suitability first.

Key references

  • Gregory RJ, Canning SS, Lee TW, Wise JC. Cognitive bibliotherapy for depression: a meta-analysis. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 2004; 35: 275-280.

More recent trials

  • Bilich LL, Deane FP, Phipps AB, Barisic M, Gould G. Effectiveness of bibliotherapy self-help for depression with varying levels of telephone helpline support. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy 2008; 15: 61-74.
  • Naylor EV. A five-minute bibliotherapy prescription as a physician-delivered treatment for depression. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering Vol 69(4-B); 2008.
  • Stice E, Rohde P, Seeley JR, Gau JM. Brief cognitive-behavioral depression prevention program for high-risk adolescents outperforms two alternative interventions: a randomized efficacy trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2008; 76: 595-606.
  • Stice E, Burton E, Beaman SK, Rohde P. Randomized trial of a brief depression prevention program: an elusive search for a psychosocial placebo control condition. Behaviour Research and Therapy 2007; 45: 863-8676.
  • Mead N, MacDonald W, Bower P, Lovell K, Richards D, Roberts C, Bucknall A. The clinical effectiveness of guided self-help versus waiting-list control in the management of anxiety and depression: a randomized controlled trial. Psychological Medicine 2005; 35: 1633-1643.

Last reviewed and updated: 10 March 2009