Saturday, June 28, 2014

When Self Help Isn’t Helpful

Working with conditions like AIDS, movement disorders, addictions and cancer, the help and knowledge that is gleaned through support groups and peer led approaches to healing is powerful and effective. At the same time, I’ve also witnessed the down sides, where someone who is afire with a new idea, can steer people in the wrong direction. It’s called “peer pressure” for a reason.

Self-help is a billion dollar industry that makes households names of people who may or may not have credentials to back up their claims.  In the June issue of Scientific American, there is an interesting article “How to Protect Yourself Against Bad Self Help.”  This is a good overview of what can happen when self help goes wrong. It’s also an important reminder of how vulnerable people with chronic and life threatening conditions are to scams and frauds promising cures, less pain, happiness etc. and why it’s  important to recognize a self-help program that could be dangerous.

Red Flags to Look For
• Basic needs are denied: This can happen at large group meetings when participants aren’t allowed breaks for food, water, bathroom, sleep, taking medications etc. While traditions like sweat lodges and fasts have been part of some traditional healing practices for centuries, they can be extremely harmful to someone living with a chronic or life threatening condition. If you want to participate in a group that has some stipulations, e.g.  special diet, exposure to high heat or cold,  having to hike up a mountain, be sure to talk to your medical provide in advance.

• The leader of a group makes you feel uncomfortable, induces stress: It’s important to note that this can happen at support groups of recognized and well studied programs, e.g. Weight Watchers. If that’s the case, switch groups.

• You are being encouraged to change your medical regiment. Discuss this with your medical provider. I saw a lot of this during the height of the AIDS epidemic, particularly when new treatments started to become available, and lots of AIDS organizations started “Buyers Clubs.” People swore by certain combinations of vitamins, supplements and even photography chemicals. 

• They have a product they are selling. This can range from books to vitamins. If it feels like a “medicine show,” be very careful.

• Lots of quotes, celebrity endorsements but no published data by a reputable source.

Ultimately If sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What’s Helpful
Consider some of the following resources:
• Dr. John Norcross  has written a book with a group of therapists “Self Help That Works”  that is regularly updated. For 41 behavioral disorders and life challenges, it identifies multiple self-help resources: books, autobiographies, films, online programs, support groups, and websites. Be sure to purchase the most recent edition. An annotated 12 strategies approach by Norcross is available on-line. 

 The National Register of Health Service Psychologists ran a three part series on Self-Help. In the third part, they reviewed top-rated self help books. Interestingly, among the top 50 were some age old books, such as “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” the child rearing books by Brazelton and Spock, a number of books on sexuality. The number one book was “For Yourself” by Barbach. “The Secret” and many other popular self-help books do not appear on this list. 

Seek Help Safely: As the result of their child participating in a self help program that killed her and two others, Kirby Brown’s parents started Seek Safely, which offers a variety of useful resources.

• Check with your condition specific organizations (e.g. American Cancer Society) for information about self help programs that are beneficial. Many hospitals and states now offer the chronic disease self management program Better Choices, Better Health Workshop. The name may vary from place to place, but they are generally based on the Stanford program

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