Is self-help always a good thing? How can you utilize it for your best interests?
Mental health content is everywhere, and self-help is more accessible than ever. But is self-help always a good thing, and how do you know if you need a mental health professional?
Savvy Psychologist is hosted by Dr. Monica Johnson. A transcript is available at Simplecast.
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Mental health content is everywhere! If you were looking for self-help resources, there hasn’t been a better time. We have the traditional self-help book market, Instagram, TikTok, mental health apps, and podcasts like the one you are listening to now. But is self-help always a good thing? How can you utilize it for your best interests?
Welcome back to Savvy Psychologist. I'm your host, Dr. Monica Johnson. Every week on this show, I'll help you face life's challenges with evidence-based approaches, a sympathetic ear, and zero judgment.
I’m personally a big proponent of increasing access to information. The only reason I do this podcast is because I fundamentally believe that everyone should have increased access to information and care for their mental health needs. However, not all self-help is good and at times, it’s no longer warranted to keep yourself solely in the self-help category without the guidance of a mental health professional. Today, you’re going to get Dr. J’s guide to good self-help.
The first thing I’m going to talk about is knowing the source of the information. Are they a healthcare professional, influencer, or everyday person of the world? I was recently at an event where someone approached me to talk about techniques that they had learned for a mental health issue they were having. When I asked more questions about the techniques and where they learned them, it was from the popular social media app TikTok. It turned out that the person they were following wasn’t a mental health professional, simply someone who struggled in the same way as they did and expressed that these techniques were helpful for them.
The problem is—these same techniques were not having the same outcome for the person I was talking to. In fact, one of the things they were doing was contraindicated because of other health issues that they had going on. I encouraged this person to seek the help of a therapist who could work in conjunction with their PCP.
No matter where you are getting information about your mental or physical health, pay attention to the source of the information.
Which is a good segway for my next point, which is to understand the purpose of the information or support you are seeking. This particular TikToker was providing their personal account of their struggles and what has worked for them. There isn’t anything wrong with that in and of itself. The internet can be extremely validating because it exposes us to the fact that we aren’t alone and provides us the opportunity to create community.
I am a big fan of creating community! However, when I’m listening to someone and I know that they don’t necessarily have a background in this area, then I would always want to explore the validity of that information before using it on myself or recommending it to others. Knowing the source and understanding the purpose can change how you perceive or interact with the information you are given. In all situations, I would want to vet the information. Even if it’s from someone who is well-respected in their field, you at least want to get additional sources.
In fact, people like myself will always encourage you to do so. We are scientists and replicability is paramount for a scientist because truth can be replicated. If I tell you that a technique works, it’s because I’ve read research and seen x-number of patients with that presenting problem and I know that this technique has a solid batting average.
When you are engaging with the information, ask yourself—am I consuming this information to manage my own health problems, to be more educated on this topic, to feel seen/heard by another, or to build community?
Now before you go on thinking that I am an elitist that thinks everyone needs to go to the doctor, take a breath! I’ve worked with some wonderful mental health advocates and sex educators in the course of my career. All of the best advocates and educators do tons of research and they connect with licensed professionals in the field. There are even classes or certifications that they can pursue despite not having an advanced degree. However, they also stay well within the boundaries of their role and understand the limitations of the information they present and communicate that to their consumers.
Be wary of anyone on the internet that makes big promises or swears that this one strategy will fix everything. I’ve had folks come to me and say, “Well, I’ve been doing a manifestation mantra every day and I know that any day now I’m going to get what I want.” Spoiler alert: that’s not how manifestation works. That’s like sending an email chain letter to 100 of your friends because if you do that, you’ll wake up next week with $10,000 in your bank account.
There is not a magic bullet—I wish so much that there was, I would give it away for free! Change typically requires a lot of micro-movements that when applied consistently will result in large effects. There is some self-help that sells nothing but upside with no downsides. And at times, there can be real downsides. One study found that 18% of therapists indicated that they had a patient who was harmed by self-help and another small study found that 12-24% of patients experienced negative effects from self-help.
I want you to think about self-help the same way that you think about over-the-counter meds. When I have a cold or a headache, I don’t go to the doctor. I walk over to the pharmacy and I buy a cold medicine or a pain reliever. The same can be said about self-help. If I’m having a common low-level issue, then self-help alone is likely going to be enough. However, if I am having a chronic or frequent problem then over-the-counter alone likely wouldn’t be the move.
For instance, if you had a headache that was around every day and you kept taking Tylenol and it wasn’t working, it would make sense to go to the doctor. Or if I was getting colds every month, I would start to think that maybe I should see someone. The same is true for mental health issues as well. If you’re not currently in therapy, a chronic issue may be a sign that you need some level of professional care. Because taking Tylenol when you have a migraine disorder isn’t going to go over very well for you. If you can’t find someone in-network with insurance, perhaps you join a psychoeducational group, or see someone at a training clinic who is lower cost.
I have interactions with folks on a daily basis—including some of you, my very listeners—who tell me about their problems and explain to me how they’ve never gone to therapy and how they need me to give them guidance on how to turn their life around. There is nothing I will be able to say in an email or 2-minute verbal interaction to do all of that. Why? The fact that it took me 20 minutes to read your detailed email message shows the nuance and complexity of the ailments that plague us. Honestly, if I said I could change your life with an email I would either be a wizard or a liar because you’re a snowflake.
One of the reasons that I love being a psychologist is the intricacies and idiosyncrasies that make a human who they are. You can take two people who on paper look the exact same and they will be totally different. Why does this matter? Because I can have two patients who both grew up with narcissistic parents, that were both sexually assaulted in college, and both have PTSD and depression diagnoses and the treatment will at times be exactly the same and at other times polar opposites.
I utilize self-help resources with my patients all the time because they can be empowering and deepen the experiences they are having in therapy. When solid self-help resources are identified, I have found that it’s helped some of my patients finish a course of treatment with me faster because they were willing to do the outside homework. But self-help can’t capture your nuances and sometimes the only thing that can be done is to enlist the help of a professional.
What’s a good self-help resource that you like to share? Let me know on Instagram @kindmindpsych. You can also reach out to me via my email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191.