139: Can a Self-Help Book REALLY Help? Or Is It Just Hype?

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 Man’s Search for Meaning. If these patients also improved, it would confirm that the effect of reading on mood was simply a non-specific “placebo” effect. This is incredibly important, because almost any type of intervention can have a placebo effect, so that as many as 35% of patients will improve just because they think they’ll improve.

Surprisingly, the patients who read the Victor Frankl book did not improve. This exciting finding indicated that a self-help book can have a specific and fairly strong antidepressant effect, but that the book had to contain sound information that was actually helpful to individuals with depression.

Finally, the investigators also did several careful follow-up studies on these patients to find out if the antidepressant effects of Feeling Good and Up from Depression would last. In several additional publications, they reported that these patients did not relapse but maintained their improved moods for periods up to three years, and that they actually continued to improve following their initial Feeling Good “bibliotherapy.

However, they did not report that they were happy all the time. But when they hit bumps in the road, most of them picked up the book again, and re-read the sections that had been the most helpful, and then quickly recovered again.

It’s great that two thirds of the patients improved so rapidly. This result is at least as good as the effects of antidepressants or treatment with psychotherapy—and it’s far cheaper, and with no side effects either! But at the same time, one third of the patients did NOT improve. And of course, you see the same thing with treatment of depression by a psychiatrist or psychologist. In fact, recent research indicates that only 50% of patients, AT MOST, improve with professional treatment.

In my research, I’ve attempted to figure out what’s different about the patients who do not rapidly recover when treated with psychotherapy or Feeling Good bibliotherapy. And I believe I did find out why. To learn about that, you’ll have to listen to the Feeling Good Podcasts or read my new book, Feeling Great, when it comes out. Hopefully fairly soon!

I was pretty inspired by the terrific and important research by Forrest Scogin, and want to thank him!

If you or your patients would like to read one of my “self-help” books, the following table will show you which books are best for which kinds of problems. The reading list at the end is for individuals who might like to check out the original studies by Dr. Scogin and his colleagues.


David and Rhonda


Topic / Problem

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

Mild to severe depression

The Feeling Good Handbook

Depression and anxiety

When Panic Attacks

All anxiety disorders

Feeling Good Together

Relationship Problems

Intimate Connections

Dating Problems

Ten Days to Self-Esteem

This is a simplified ten-step program to overcome depression and boost self-esteem. it is effective individually or in support groups.

Bibliotherapy Research

  1. Ackerson J, Scogin F, McKendree-Smith N, Lyman RD (1998) Cognitive bibliotherapy for mild and moderate adolescent depressive symptomatology. J Consult Clin Psychol 66: 685-690.
  2. Floyd M, Rohen N, Shackelford JA, Hubbard KL, Parnell MB, et al. (2006) Two-year follow-up of bibliotherapy and individual cognitive therapy for depressed older adults. Behav Modif 30: 281-294.
  3. Floyd M, Scogin F, McKendree-Smith N, Floyd DL, Rokke PD (2004) Cognitive therapy for depression: a comparison of individual psychotherapy and bibliotherapy for depressed older adults. Behav Modif 28: 297-318.
  4. Jamison C, Scogin F (1995) The outcome of cognitive bibliotherapy with depressed adults. J Consult Clin Psychol 63: 644-650.
  5. Mains JA, Scogin FR (2003) The effectiveness of self-administered treatments: a practice-friendly review of the research. J Clin Psychol 59: 237-246.
  6. McKendree-Smith NL, Floyd M, Scogin FR (2003) Self-administered treatments for depression: a review. J Clin Psychol 59: 275-288.
  7. Scogin F, Floyd M, Jamison C, Ackerson J, Landreville P, et al. (1996) Negative outcomes: what is the evidence on self-administered treatments? J Consult Clin Psychol 64: 1086-1089.
  8. Scogin F, Hamblin D, Beutler L (1987) Bibliotherapy for depressed older adults: a self-help alternative. Gerontologist 27: 383-387.
  9. Scogin F, Jamison C, Davis N (1990) Two-year follow-up of bibliotherapy for depression in older adults. J Consult Clin Psychol 58: 665-667.
  10. Scogin F, Jamison C, Gochneaur K (1989) Comparative efficacy of cognitive and behavioral bibliotherapy for mildly and moderately depressed older adults. J Consult Clin Psychol 57: 403-407.
  11. Smith NM, Floyd MR, Jamison CS, and Scogin F (1997) Three-year follow-up of bibliotherapy for depression. J Consult Clin Psychol 65: 324-327.



You can reach Dr. Burns at Dr. Rhonda Barovsky practices in Walnut Creek, California, and can be reached at

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TEAM-CBT Methods for Anxiety Disorders–

Step-by-Step Training for Therapists

by David D. Burns, MD and Jill Levitt, PhD


Dr. Jill Levitt and I are offering what I think will be an outstanding workshop on the treatment of anxiety disorders on Sunday, May 19, 2019. Our Sunday workshops can be tremendously rewarding, so consider attending if you are interested. 

The last Sunday workshop in February was really fun! We have been SOLD OUT for the in person slots in Palo Alto for two months, but still have spots online, and you can join us from anywhere in the world. Register soon if you are interested, as the online slots are also limited.


WHEN: May 19, 2019, 8:30 am – 4:30 pm PST
(11:30 am-7:30 pm EST)

WHERE: Join us live online or in person at the Creekside Inn, Palo Alto, CA.


WILL I GET CE CREDITS? YES! 7 CE hours available

Completion of this workshop also counts towards TEAM-CBT Level 1, 2 or 3 Certification

WHO CAN ATTEND? Therapists of all levels are welcome

CAN I REGISTER IF I’M NOT A THERAPIST? Although the workshop is geared for therapists, it will be taught in a clear and basic way that anyone can benefit from.




You will love this lively, amusing, and immensely useful day of training with Drs. Burns, Levitt and the Feeling Good Institute Staff. The trainers will use a combination of didactic teaching, live demonstrations, video, and breakout group practice to enhance skill-building.


Act fast if you want to attend!

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And there will be two awesome summer intensives for you this year!

July 15 – 18, 2019
Calgary four-day intensive
Sponsored by Jack Hirose & Assoc.


July 29 – August 1, 2019
South San Francisco four-day intensive
Sponsored by Praxis


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