Benefits of Informal Psychological Helping

Recently I wrote about the difficulties of evaluating mental health phone lines. Following on from this I’ve been taking a look at research into how the training of therapists affects outcomes. Some of this research provides encouraging reading for helpers with less training – although by round-a-bout means.

There has been a large amount of research into the effectiveness of psychological therapies. Much of it – and bear in mind this is a massive generalisation – has shown that ‘the talking cure’ is effective. A large part of this research has examined whether a therapist’s training affects outcomes. It has been found – disturbingly for professional therapists – that there is not much difference between those with and without specific training. Indeed, sometimes the ‘para-professionals’ do better. While this is not exactly solid proof that helplines are helping, it certainly suggests the chances are good.

Some mental health helplines, such as Samaritans, now also accept email, as well as trialling text messaging. Can this be helpful to people?

Pennebaker (2003) explains the advantages to health that have been found from simply writing about emotional problems. It seems that even this simple act, while painful to carry out, may have long-term benefits. Still, the writing has to be done in the right way and research is just starting into what that might be. Three particular factors have so far been found to be important:

  • Use of positive emotion words is helpful
  • Some use of negative emotion words
  • Use of insight words is helpful

It seems that the people who benefit most are those who start off with a relatively incoherent story and then progressively make it more coherent. Psychologists are now moving on to find out if articulating your feelings actually changes patterns of thought.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 9 January 2006

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