The idea that a self-help book could actually be as good as a professional form of help seems like it’s a fairly recent one. Think of the titles we know and love - Feel the fear and do it anyway, How to make friends and influence people, the Overcoming… series – these all deal with modern social problems with a blend of readable psychology and a common-sense therapeutic style. Whatever did we do before them?

The answer is – not very much without the spoken word. A quick check in the annals of the British Library will tell you that back in the days of Nicholas Culpeper (a Londoner, born in Surrey in the early 17th C. when classical medicine was in fashion, and hygiene wasn’t) roughly 80% of men were illiterate. A good book was an excellent form of knowledge, if you could use it. But knowledge of how to help yourself with what we now call ‘health literacy’, was a strange and unusual concept. Your average 17th c. Londoner didn’t know how the heart worked, or why infections happened, and would live to about 39.7 years old. Culpeper’s idea was to educate ordinary people about the use of plants to help them heal themselves – knowledge that was usually only in the hands of guilds of physicians, healers, quacks and wise-women. The few, not the many. A growing rate of literacy and the availability of books changed this for the better, and the delivery of self-help via a book began to grow. Culpeper published quite a few books on the subject, creating a legacy for pharmacists and indirectly following a custom of creating illustrated ‘Herbals’ – quasi-medical books on the uses of herbs. Whilst the pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge in them may not have been revolutionary, the idea that such knowledge could be freely available in a book certainly was – not that it endeared him to many of the physicians of the day.

Today, modern self-help is more likely to recommend mindfulness than marjoram. We have moved on to an era where nearly everyone can read, books are plentiful and cheap, but health literacy is still very low. But what if books could perform that role – helping and not hindering? The answer of course, is that they do. Self-help has sprung up in many different genres since Culpeper’s Herbal, and mental health is certainly an area where any extra help is an addition to current treatment. Books on Prescription is an excellent way of showing people that bibliotherapy can help those with both short-term and long-term conditions to face and deal with their issues. Like Culpeper’s books, they offer an expert’s view that can always be readily consulted. A book ensures that you need not feel alone if you are up at midnight, dealing with depression. A well-researched and comprehensively friendly book may help the reader to see that they are not without support in their struggle. In an era where your browser activity can be viewed online, privacy around health matters really is vital. Libraries are still an open community where anyone can take out a book without being judged.

A book can be offered, given, or even used as the basis of a therapy group – the classic Mind over Mood by Greenberger & Padesky has an excellent set of resources, such as handouts. Self-help isn’t limited to adult mental health, either – Books on Prescription developed a list for the mental health of young people, recognising that the struggle isn’t always the same for all ages.

Where might self-help take us next? We already have the idea that ebooks are a way of delivering much-needed knowledge to those who can’t reach the books which can help them. Both public libraries and NHS libraries have deliverable, loanable ebooks to help make that provision. Might book groups start to read self-help in their sessions? Perhaps it is the personal angle which makes a difference to the reader. In that case, the emergence of self-help memoirs (such as The Buddha and the borderline by Kiera Van Gelder, Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon and Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, to name just a few) may help to change the lives of future readers.

We need to be inspired just as much as we need to be taught the techniques of relaxation. Aren’t libraries the place where the knowledge of generations of people – through books written to help others – is passed on to others? Inspiration - perhaps that’s the real magic of self-help.

Naomi Hay-Gibson,
Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust