Self-Help: Popular, but Effective? (cont.)

The pain can become so intense that Patterson cut off most social ties even though she was a public relations professional in a major metropolitan area. Eventually, the stabbing aches prevented her from eating independently or talking, and she had to communicate with doctors using a pencil.

While in the hospital, Patterson met, for the first time, another patient who had the same ailment. The experience, and her doctor's encouragement, had such a profound impact on her that when she became better after surgery, she decided to establish a self-help group for people with the disorder.

Thirteen years later, Patterson heads a national organization that promotes awareness of the disease and spearheads research into pathology and treatments. The Trigeminal Neuralgia Association (TNA) now hosts 70 support groups nationwide, and assists similar groups in other countries.

The growth of her organization, and seeing people get community support for their suffering has boosted Patterson's self-esteem.

"It taught me the lesson that you need to assume control of whatever illness you have, and also to go to whatever lengths you have to, to get the best information you can," she says.

Patterson's experience appears to be in line with scientific research on support groups. According to Norcross, three large, federally funded studies on such groups for substance abuse have shown that meetings are as effective or nearly as effective in treating addicts as professional psychotherapy.

Studies have also shown that people who go to medical self-help groups tend to feel better, comply more with treatment, improve in health, and their families tend to be more involved and more knowledgeable about their condition.

Doctors have also recommended online support groups, at the very least to help people retain anonymity. It has been noted, however, that communication through the Internet may not be as effective as face-to-face contact.

When it comes to books, there is little evidence that advice publications work for people. Yet positive testimonials abound.

Duskin Jasper is a 31-year-old computer programmer who speaks enthusiastically about Weil's teachings. After long days at work, he used to get take-out or have food delivered to his place, and then plop himself on the couch, watching TV. Now, he has cut down his work hours, searches for pure or natural foods, cooks his meals, brings fresh flowers into his home, visits art museums, and generally seeks activities that invigorate his body and mind.

"I'm feeling better about myself psychologically and emotionally," says Jasper. "It helps me deal better with my busy life."

Self-help books and groups have certainly made an impact on American society, with the number of resources growing, and the interest in them expanding just as exponentially. While scientists have more research to do on their effectiveness, people aren't waiting for the results. They're figuring it out for themselves.

SOURCES: Alex Ramos. The New York Times web site. Barnes & Noble web site. American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse. John C. Norcross, PHD, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, Penn., author, The Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources and Mental Health. USA Today web site. Publisher's Weekly web site. Edward J. Madara, director of the American Self-Help Group Clearinghouse. Andrew Weil, MD, author, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. Claire Patterson, founder, Trigeminal Neuralgia Association. WebMD Live Events Transcript: "The Importance of Joining a Cancer Support Group with Selma Schimmel."

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Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005 6:15:37 AM