sad man
August 24, 2017

Self-help may be as effective as professional therapy, study claims

Turning to a self-help book, app or online program to cope with stress could be just as effective as regularly seeing a professional therapist, new research published in the journal Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research has claimed.

In the paper, Robert King, a psychology professor at Queensland University of Technology, and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 15 studies, all of which involved a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treatment, said Quartz. They reviewed outcomes for 723 patients who were being treated for conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD and PTSD.

CBT, the UK National Health Service (NHS) explained, is a treatment technique which involves talking about the patient’s current problems instead of focusing on his or her past. It is based on the notion that thoughts, feelings, physical sensation and actions are interconnected, and the goal is to find a way to improve state of mind by breaking problems down into smaller parts.

Measuring patient outcomes using mental health diagnostic scales, the authors of the new study reported finding “no difference in treatment completion rate and broad equivalence of treatment outcomes for participants treated through self-help and participants treated through a therapist.”

“Also, contrary to our expectations, we found that the variability of outcomes was broadly equivalent, suggesting that differences in efficacy of individual therapists were not sufficient to make therapy outcomes more variable when a therapist was involved,” they added. “Overall, the findings suggest that self-help, with minimal therapist input, has considerable potential as a first-line intervention.”

Experts believe seeing a therapist still has its advantages

However, as Quartz noted, it is important to note that the majority of the patients who used self-help techniques also had at least some interaction with a therapist (through a training session that was designed to ensure that the self-help method was used properly, for example). It may be that even this brief contact had a significant impact on the outcome, the website noted.

Furthermore, each of the studies focused on a single form of therapy, CBT, which was conducted over a limited period of time. So while in those specific situations, the study found that therapists did not significantly improve treatment outcomes, the story could be different when it comes to a long-term therapy plan and/or different types of treatment.

Also, as Guardian health writer Mark Brown pointed out, the researchers found “variability for both CBT approaches provided by therapists and self-help, suggesting that what someone brings to the therapy is very important to the end result... Therapy isn’t a magic bullet.”

In fact, he said, the use of self-help techniques increased the variability of outcome, and Brown believes that this may be because therapists can adapt the treatment plan to better suit the needs of the patient in situations where a specific approach no longer proves effective.

“Self-help can be brilliant, but only if you are at least part of the way to being sorted. Therapists have the benefit of being able to respond to people,” Brown added. “Everyone tries self-help before they admit the things that trouble them are beyond their resources to resolve. By all means be your own therapist, until you can’t be any more and need someone else. We must be careful as a country that self-help is never the only help on offer.”

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Image credit: Unsplash/Ben White