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Who Does Self Help Really Help?

I have thought about this for too long, so decided it was right to blog about it.

I registered on a Facebook self help course a while ago, if I’m honest, I’m really not a fan of one of the hosts, but I thought I would have a nosey to see what it was all about. It was a weeks course and I have to got to admit, I didn’t last the first day. I was mad by the time I had turned it off.

I really struggle with the whole self- help industry, this ticked all the boxes, with the exception of the motivational speaker walk, you know the one where they do a run but don’t actually go any faster and they kick their heels really high. The upbeat music, getting people to clap hands, asking lots of questions like “are you excited to be here?” “Are you ready to make a change?” “Have you got what it takes?” The speaker told an inspirational story about being broke and achieving great things, he had stated that if you want to be a coach too, you already have the skills. If you could have a conversation with your 20 year old self you can sell that information. As a psychologist all I can say is “Wow”. Should I be feeling foolish for doing a 3 year degree a 2 year masters and then 2 years supervised practice complete with logbooks and then getting Chartered with The British Psychological Society ( BPS) and then getting Registered with the Health Carers Professions Council (HCPC) and then doing Continuous Professional Development (CPD). Are you saying all I needed to do was have a conversation with my 20 year old self? The speaker was actually celebrating his lack of education. Can you imagine if we applied the same rules to physical health as we apply to mental health? I’ve had my eyes lasered. I’m squeamish and clumsy and I don’t know that much about eyes ( vaguely remember something about rods and cones) would you trust me with a scalpel and your cornea ?

As a registered psychologist the idea of self-trained, self-help gurus is problematic for me. We spend lots of time in training looking at things like confirmation bias, unconscious bias and we learn how to read and critique academic papers. This is really important in my opinion. We often hear people talk about the “science of success”, however they use the Yale Goal Setting Study as evidence that written down goals makes people successful. If you read any self-help literature you've probably heard of the Yale Goal Setting study, for those of you who have not heard of the study, in 1953 Yale students were asked have they got written down goals, only 3% had. Many years later researchers followed up the students and the 3% who had written down goals were earning more than the combined income of the other 97% of students. Sounds compelling doesn't it? The only problem is there is no evidence this study actually happened. There are some clues there, for example there are never any research is names linked to the study, and to be frank the numbers are just a bit too convenient, real research gives beautiful and nuanced answers, if the numbers are to neat the chances are they are made up. Speaking of numbers, the speaker claimed they had certain number of combined views on Youtube and Facebook. Being in a bit of a mood I checked out the views on both platforms and let’s just say it was considerably fewer than the number they claimed. Lots of self help books are so poorly referenced that they just quote other books rather than looking for the actual studies. It’s the equivalent of telling people the best way to get on the train to school is to find platform 9 3/4 and running into the concrete post, it must be true it’s in a book.

A big part of the problem is that you need to know what you don’t know. The Dunning Kruger Effect demonstrates that people with a little knowledge can be more confident in their knowledge than someone with a lot of knowledge in a subject. This can be because the more you learn about a subject, the more you realise that there is a lot that you don’t know.

I can hear people saying “what's the harm?”, if people write down their goals it's not going to do any harm is it? However what about when working with vulnerable people. Lots of these gurus teach people how to get rich/ happy/healthy and use their “fake it until you make it” rhetoric. However how many poor coaches are there out there teaching people how to get rich? The method of getting rich is taking money off people who want to learn how to get rich and so the cycle continues. Registered psychologists and other regulated health professionals have professional bodies that they answer to and have to abide by the code of ethics, in my opinion this is really important. Vulnerable people should not be exploited. We also need to know things like, stopping anti-depressant suddenly can make someone feel suicidal or stopping drinking alcohol suddenly can induce seizures. I’ve actually seen someone claim that it is impossible to be depressed whilst looking up! Wow! Imagine if someone stopped taking medication based on the “looking up” advice. I always hate to see these self help gurus promoting toxic MLM schemes. Most people lose money with them, but the nonsense advice keeps people hooked.

There is a really dark side to self help and you need to be careful where you get your advice. If you are feeling like you are struggling with your mental health you should discuss this with your GP. There are also reputable places you can contact such as The Samaritans and Mind.

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