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Logo of brjgenpracRCGP homepageJ R Coll Gen Pract at PubMed CentralBJGP at RCGPBJGP at RCGP
Br J Gen Pract. 2005 May 1; 55(514): 387–392.
PMCID: PMC1463163

Self-help books for depression: how can practitioners and patients make the right choice?

Liz Anderson, RGN, MSc, Research Associate, Glyn Lewis, PhD, FRCPsych, Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology, and Ricardo Araya, PhD, MRCPsych, Reader in Psychiatry
Academic Unit of Psychiatry, University of Bristol
Rodney Elgie, Immediate President of GAMIAN Europe, President of the European Patient's Forum
Centre for GP Integration Studies, University of New South Wales
Glynn Harrison, MD, FRCPsych, Norah Cooke Hurle Professor of Mental Health
Academic Unit of Psychiatry, University of Bristol
Judy Proudfoot, PhD, Senior Research Fellow
Centre for GP Integration Studies, University of New South Wales
Ulrike Schmidt, MD, PhD, MRCPsych, Reader
Sub-Dean Overseas Office, Institute of Psychiatry, London
Deborah Sharp, PhD, FRCGP, Professor of Primary Health Care
Community Based Medicine, University of Bristol
Alison Weightman, MA, PhD, Head of Library Service Development
Cardiff University, Cardiff
Chris Williams, MMedSc, MD, FRPscyh, Director of Glasgow Institute for Psychological Interventions



Depression is a common and important public health problem most often treated by GPs. A self-help approach is popular with patients, yet little is known about its effectiveness.


Our primary aim was to review and update the evidence for the clinical effectiveness of bibliotherapy in the treatment of depression. Our secondary aim was to identify which of these self-help materials are generally available to buy and to examine the evidence specific to these publications.


Medline, CINAHL, EMBASE, PsycINFO, CCTR, PsiTri and the National Research Register were searched for randomised trials that evaluated self-help books for depression which included participants aged over 16 years with a diagnosis or symptoms of depression. Clinical symptoms, quality of life, costs or acceptability to users were the required outcome measures. Papers were obtained and data extracted independently by two researchers. A meta-analysis using a random effects model was carried out using the mean score and standard deviation of the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression at the endpoint of the trial.


Eleven randomised controlled trials were identified. None fulfilled CONSORT guidelines and all were small, with the largest trial having 40 patients per group. Nine of these evaluated two current publications, Managing Anxiety and Depression (UK) and Feeling Good (US). A meta-analysis of 6 trials evaluating Feeling Good found a large treatment effect compared to delayed treatment (standardised mean difference = −1.36; 95% confidence interval [CI] = −1.76 to −0.96). Five self-help books were identified as being available and commonly bought by members of the public in addition to the two books that had been evaluated in trials.


There are a number of self-help books for the treatment of depression readily available. For the majority, there is little direct evidence for their effectiveness. There is weak evidence that suggests that bibliotherapy, based on a cognitive behavioural therapy approach is useful for some people when they are given some additional guidance. More work is required in primary care to investigate the cost-effectiveness of self-help and the most suitable format and presentation of materials.

Keywords: bibliotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, cost-effectiveness, depression, randomised controlled trials, self care

Articles from The British Journal of General Practice are provided here courtesy of Royal College of General Practitioners