A new scheme launching today will see doctors refer patients to range of 30 self-help books, available in public libraries across England. Will it help or hinder?
Self-help is hardly a new phenomenon. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote On Love and On Human Life thousands of years before US psychologist Dale Carnegie explained How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Then, a quarter of a century ago, when Susan Jeffers wrote Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, one critic said: “Lady Di could be bicycling nude down the street giving this book away and nobody would read it.” It went on to sell more than 15 million copies globally.
We’re all looking for new ways to help patients with mental health problems improve their general wellbeing. James Kingsland, GP
In Britain self-help came of age around the early naughties with a surge of titles that promised everything, from a new life and instant wealth to inner peace.
Some were sported by celebrities including George Michael and Geri Halliwell. Many were upbeat and exported from the US (where levels of sentimental optimism are at infinitely louder decibels than in Britain). They ranged from He’s Just Not That Into You (message as per title) to Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus (message: sexes think differently – you should too).
But today self-help will be given its greatest validation yet. Under a new scheme to be launched by the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, GPs will publicise the titles of 30 specially selected self-help books, which will be made available in participating libraries across England from 10 June.
They include classics such as Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway to more specific titles such as Manage your Stress for a Healthier Life and Overcoming Relationship Problems. It is, in effect, a selection of reading designed to combat everything from anxiety to depression, from low self-esteem to eating disorders.
The scheme, from The Reading Agency, has the backing of the Department of Health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of GPs.
All this feels like an unusual (and un-British) response to dealing with medical issues. After all, one of the biggest criticisms of self-help books is the fear that they can compound health concerns before actually solving them.
But that is refuted by James Kingsland, GP and champion of the scheme, who describes it as “integrating care”.
There are currently 6 million people in the UK with anxiety or depression; around three-quarters are not receiving any treatment. “We’re all looking for new ways to help patients with mental health problems improve their self-care and general wellbeing, especially in such tough economic times,” Kingsland says.
There are some self-help books that can change how one thinks about the world. Tim Lott, author
The author Tim Lott told Channel 4 News that self-help has a “bad reputation in Britain” but that some titles can be useful. “There is a lot of rubbish crowding the market and it is little wonder that many in Britain are suspicious of self-help and associated with over-optimistic Californians promising to change your life in just a week.
“But there are some self-help books that can change how one thinks about the world. I have nothing against the idea of GPs opting to offer reading: the human mind is complicated and the NHS doesn’t have the resources to give everyone the attention they need.”
Norman Lamb, minister of state for care and support, says the scheme is about “empowering and informing people which is so important, particularly as we know that some people are often hesitant to access conventional forms of support when it comes to mental health”.
The main challenge, rather like self-help books themselves, is whether this initiative has long-term sustainability or is simply a fad designed to relieve burdens on GPs while shoring up support for local libraries. That will inevitably become clearer in the months ahead.
For now, in the age of the digital diagnosis, where some would sooner head to Google than a surgery, a GP-endorsed reading list may be a neat solution. But it needs to be kept in perspective, for no matter how promising the title, one aspect of self-help is certain: its advice is nothing unless read with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Will the scheme work? Which self-help book changed your life? Tell us using the hashtag #c4selfhelp