What Is the Self-Help Movement?

Marjorie McAtee

The self-help movement is considered to have begun in the early part of the 20th century, though it began to gain much popular momentum from the 1970s onward. Self-help is a type of therapy in which individuals with shared experiences try to help one another cope with life problems. These are usually the kinds of problems specific to a particular group, so the sharing of experiences and knowledge within a self-help group is considered of vital importance. The self-help movement largely rejects the intervention of psychiatric professionals, instead focusing on the importance of moral support and validation from one's peers. Members of the modern self-help movement typically believe that people in general are capable of taking responsibility for themselves, setting goals, and following plans, with the support of like-minded peers facing similar problems.

In the self-help market, authors may produce work focused on personal experiences.
In the self-help market, authors may produce work focused on personal experiences.

Many people consider Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) the first self-help group. It was founded in 1935 by Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, an alcoholic. The organization encourages alcoholics and recovering alcoholics to meet regularly. During these meetings, the members typically share their experiences with addiction, and offer one another moral support to resist cravings for alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous has had what may be considered a profound impact on the self-help movement, by spreading its twelve-steps model to other addiction self-help groups.

Other early proponents of self-help ideals worked to improve the lives of the mentally ill in the first half of the 20th century. John Beard, an American social worker in the 1950s, believed in helping psychiatric patients focus on their positive personal attributes, rather than on their illness symptoms. Beard encouraged psychiatric patients to pursue their interests, socialize with others in normative ways, and take jobs. It is believed that Beard's emphasis on personal strengths allowed him to help many patients enjoy immense improvements in their condition.

In the 1970s, the self-help movement began to branch out from self-help for addiction and mental illness to self-help for other common problems. Self-help support groups for survivors of abuse, incest, crime, and other potentially damaging experiences began to emerge. Chronically or terminally ill patients began to form groups to share their experiences and offer one another support. Support groups for the recently bereaved also began to gain popularity.

Advocates of self-help believe that the sharing of similar experiences can help those struggling with addiction, mental illness, or traumatic experiences feel empowered and a part of a community of peers. While the self-help movement does not typically discredit the value of professional counseling services, its members generally believe that peer support and help are valuable tools to help overcome life's obstacles.

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