Free Online Self-Help Actually Can Make a Difference

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Finding the right therapist is hard. Finding a therapist you can afford and who really helps is even harder. Even if there's a light at the end of the tunnel with COVID-19, we all could use a boost to our mental health — and the more it saves us, the better. You get what you pay for, of course, but some researchers have found that even free self-help can measurably improve our psychological state.


Psychologists at Yale University have just released a study with a pretty unique premise. The researchers compared outcomes between online students taking two different courses, one a general survey about psychology, structured like a regular academic class, and the other a blockbuster Coursera MOOC called ​The Science of Well-Being.​ The latter expects that students "do exercises known to improve psychological health, such as improving sleep patterns, developing exercise routines, and practicing meditation." The former only requires normal, college-level homework.


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Both groups reported significant improvements in their mental health. However, the ​Science of Well-Being​ students reported much greater benefits, thanks in large part to the participatory nature of the course. "Knowledge is great, but it isn't enough," said lead author David Yaden. "You also have to do the work."

We live in an era where even mental health is a booming business for app developers, without much consideration for how it helps patients and practitioners. Yaden and his team emphasize that their results don't mean doing self-work through a free online course can replace professional therapy and medication — but if you're looking for some supplementary help, look for classes that go beyond lectures and ask you to work on yourself too.