Supportive computer programs, phone apps and self-help books can’t cure depression, but they might help you feel better until you get professional help.

Approximately one in five people who suffer from sub-threshold depression—experiencing some symptoms of depression, but not enough to meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis—are at risk of becoming one of the sixteen million Americans who experience a major depressive episode within a year. For cultural, financial, skeptical, stigmatic, and other reasons, more than one-third of adults who experience major depressives episodes cannot, or choose not to, seek professional assistance.1  Some may turn to self-help programs in an attempt to try to find relief.

What the Science Says

Although more and bigger studies need to be done, research indicates that, for some people, minimal contact psychotherapy—guided self-help with minimal face-to-face professional interaction—can help improve physical functioning and mental health. It can also reduce the risk of falling into a major depression over the course of a year.2

One study that included more than 250 people with diabetes who also had symptoms of depression found that an Internet self-help program significantly improved symptoms of depression, including reduced emotional distress over having a chronic disease, and improved overall mental and physical functioning. In fact, the group that participated in the guided self-help program showed more improvement in these areas than a control group that participated in conventional treatment that included only basic online information about depression. 3

A study of 66 distressed college students yielded similar results. The students followed an online self-help cognitive behavioral therapy program that included only brief contact with trained student coaches and reported significantly reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. In both of these studies, mental health improvements gained during the study period were maintained at six-month follow-up sessions. 3,4

What Guided Self-Help Looks Like

Guided self-help can include questionnaires, reading materials, assignments, and sometimes quizzes to be sure the user understands the material provided. Educational material is designed to help increase awareness of the connections between one’s emotions, moods, behaviors and biology. Structured programs are often broken down into modules that focus on different aspects of depression, anxiety, or stress and developing skills needed to manage symptoms and make healthier lifestyle choices. Assignments may include keeping a mood-monitoring diary, self-analysis of thinking patterns, or getting involved in more positive or forward-thinking activities. Self-help programs are generally set up for the user to work through independently, but sometimes offer video or telephone support as well.

Considering the widespread availability of mobile phone and tablet apps for health-related conditions, researchers have also looked at their potential to help treat mental health issues. A large-scale review of all studies relating to the use of mobile phone apps for mental health care found, however, that while there are more than three thousand mental health apps available for download, most have not been studied and little to nothing is known about their short- or long-term effectiveness. While some apps that have been studied reportedly helped to monitor mood and provide relief of depressive symptoms, the overall number of mental health apps backed by solid scientific evidence is sorely lacking. The potential for apps to reach and help treat people who are suffering is there, researchers say, but more in-depth studies are necessary to prove which programs actually do help reduce symptoms of depression, short- or long-term.5

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One small, recent study of just 13 patients with depression who were treated with an Internet-based cognitive behavioral program found that while remote treatment is attractive to some people with depression, it doesn’t work for others. More patients felt too alone with a self-help process and expressed a need for a more individualized plan and face-to-face, real-time contact with a professional therapist. For those patients, the researchers felt that Internet-based self-help programs are best used as an adjunct to conventional treatments.6 At the same time, earlier studies found that self-help Internet programs only, with no person-to-person contact, significantly improved symptoms of depression in at least half of moderately to severely depressed patients.7

What’s Right for YOU

Even studies that show “significant” results won’t apply to everyone. So the question is: Will self-help work for you? Psychologist John C. Norcross, PhD, lead author of the book Self-Help That Works: Resources to Improve Emotional Health and Strengthen Relationships, says that self-help is generally better than no help at all and, in some cases, can be almost as effective as working one-on-one with a professional. When choosing a self-help book or program, however, Dr. Norcross strongly advises doing your homework.8

Look for self-help resources that make specific and realistic claims while clearly expressing limitations. Be sure the author or producer has the appropriate credentials to give advice on the topic or conveys advice and recommendations from legitimate sources. Keep in mind that even though self-help materials can help you cope with and better understand your symptoms, they are commercial products designed to have broad appeal. If you show signs of depression, it is important to speak with a mental health care professional to find out the best treatment for resolving your particular personal issues, whether that includes conventional treatments, self-help, or both.

The more serious your condition, the more you are in need of face-to-face help from a mental health professional, Dr. Norcross adds. If any of the following are true for you, he says, put away the self-help materials and get yourself to a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist.

  1. You can’t reliably distinguish between what is real and what isn’t.
  2. You don’t have the motivation to implement what is being suggested in self-help material, or you don’t have the ability to apply the advice in your own life.
  3. You’ve tried two or more self-help materials and they just don’t work for you.

Self-help is only as useful as it is effective, so if it is not working for you, be honest with yourself. Depression is a serious condition and there is no shame in asking for help.



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Last Updated: Mar 18, 2019