Thinking man’s therapy

August 22, 2011

Patricia Anne Murphy is a philosopher with a real-world mission.

Murphy may have a PhD and an intimate knowledge of Aristotle and Descartes, but in her snug Takoma Park bungalow, she’s helping a broken-hearted patient struggle through a divorce.

Instead of offering the wounded wife a prescription for Effexor — which she’s not licensed to do anyway — she instructs her to read Epictetus, the original cognitive therapist, who argued that humans often mistake their feelings for facts and suffer as a result.

Murphy is one of an increasing number of philosophical counselors, practitioners who are putting their esoteric learning to practical use helping people with some of life’s persistent afflictions. Though they help clients cope with many of the same issues that conventional therapists do — divorce, job stress, the economic downturn, parenting woes, chronic illness and matters of the heart — their methods are very different.

They’re like intellectual life coaches. Very intellectual. They have in-depth knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theories on the nature of life and can recite passages from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological explorations of the question of being. And they use them to help clients overcome their mother issues.

Philosophical counselors are becoming increasingly popular at a time when Americans are taking more antidepressants than ever before. According to a study published in the August issue of Health Affairs, non-psychiatrists are increasingly prescribing drugs for patients who haven’t even gotten a diagnosis of mental illness.

“Not everyone needs to be medicated,” said Murphy, a thin woman with long, gray hair. “Whereas drugs can treat the body,” she said, “there may be other things that the soul needs.”

Unlike a visit to a conventional psychologist or psychotherapist, seeing Murphy won’t involve lying on a couch or reaching for the obligatory tissue box. Though she works from a home library lined with tomes by Albert Camus, Søren Kierke­gaard and Immanuel Kant, Murphy takes clients outside for brisk strolls through her leafy neighborhood because Kant believed that walking helped thinking and was soothing for the soul.

The therapy is not covered by health insurance but is typically offered on a sliding scale and averages about $80 an hour for one-on-one sessions.

Of course, such therapy is not for everyone.

“It really depends on the disorder or mental health issue,” said W. Mark Hamilton, director and chief executive of American Mental Health Counselors Association. “I think the fact that [philosophical counselors] are not trained as clinical mental health counselors is a concern. . . . For someone with a serious mental issue, they need to see a trained mental health professional.”

Philosophical counselors say they immediately refer any client with clinical depression or suicidal thoughts to psychiatrists, fearing lawsuits if they make a mistake by prescribing Kierkegaard to a client who really needs Klonopin.

The field is still in its early stages. There are about 300 philosophical counselors in 36 states and more than 20 foreign countries who are certified by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, along with another 600 who practice but are not certified, said Lou Marinoff, president of the organization and author of the international bestseller “Plato, Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems.’’

The bushy-bearded Marinoff is the public face of philosophical counseling. Dispensing his rapid-fire Socratic-shrink shtick, he could be a cross between Woody Allen and Sigmund Freud.

Trying to overcome the grief of losing your job in a bad economy?

“Read the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, who taught that every loss comes bundled with gain, for they are inseparable manifestations of yin and yang,” offered Marinoff. “In other words, instead of focusing on the loss, focus on the gain: Losing a job, you have just gained an opportunity to develop a latent talent and to enter a more suitable career path.”

Those mired in depression and anxiety over weight gain should turn to the French existentialist philosopher Sartre, who has much to say on the art of self-deception.

Suffering from a midlife crisis? Try a dose of Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in his autobiography of creating an inner 25-year-old superhero in middle age.

Marinoff, a professor and philosophy chair at the City College of New York, is determined to make philosophical counseling a popular and well-respected profession.

In 2010, the philosophy department at City College approved the creation of a master of arts degree in applied philosophy, which will include a specialization in philosophical counseling. It will be at least a year before the program starts accepting students. It is the first such program in the United States and the second in the world; the University of Sevilla in Spain instituted the first master of arts degree in philosophical counseling.

Marinoff’s movement has detractors, especially in the highly competitive field of psychotherapy, where turf wars between social workers and mental health professionals are as numerous as the differences between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

One of Marinoff’s most vocal critics is Elliot D. Cohen, who has a PhD in philosophy from Brown University and is a certified practitioner of rational emotive behavior therapy, a type of therapy that combines philosophical elements and established mental health techniques. Cohen argues that the tools of philosophy should be integrated into mainstream therapy.

“Marinoff is dead-ending philosophical counseling by creating an elite group that can only focus on an elite part of the population and limiting the contributions they can make,” he said.

One 35-year-old District woman, who sought treatment because she was trapped in a tortured marriage and having an affair, described herself as the perfect patient for Marinoff’s band of philosophers.

“I wasn’t depressed or fighting bipolar disorder. I didn’t need Paxil. I just needed the skills to think clearly about what went wrong,” said the woman, who works in graphic art. “I heard online about these shrink-thinker types who used John Milton, Adam Smith and Socrates, and I called right away. I wanted to know how our greatest minds would see my situation.”

This summer, Marinoff’s association held a three-day certification program for philosophical counselors. About two dozen philosophers from around the country gathered in New York for the event, and some came from Botswana, Colombia and France.

The advent of this new therapy is well-timed, since many philosophers are out of work — or more out of work than usual.

Colleges and universities responding to the demand for majors that students can bring to the bank have cut philosophy departments and classes, decreasing the number of teaching jobs. The last thing a parent wants to hear in this economy is that their college student hopes to makes a career of pondering life’s cosmic questions.

As Marinoff puts it, “What are the first words a philosophy graduate utters? ‘Would you like fries with that, sir?’

“See, the fries joke, that’s exactly what we are trying to change,” Marinoff said. “The Greeks had ancient philosophers at every street corner. Today, our society is more like Rome with our circus culture. It’s all very entertaining. But we have to change the public perception of a philosopher as some useless academic relic.”

Anne Barnhill, 35, was among those taking part in Marinoff’s certification program. Barnhill, who lives in the District, recently completed her postdoctorate studies in bioethics and health at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University. She already has a PhD in philosophy from New York University.

“You can go on the Internet and find 100 people who are giving you advice,” Barnhill said. “But there are thinkers who are recognized for their knowledge, and ignoring them in our generation just seems like such a loss.”

Sean Holland, 37, is a self-described “philosopher in pinstripes” who has a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now works for a corporation based in New York. His focus is on ethical issues for companies. He also hopes to one day be a philosophical counselor.

“I was trying to find a decent job in this economy, and I found that philosophy is actually back as a respected profession,” Holland said. “We are trained problem-solvers and, in a way, we can launch a return to an old set of skills that are very much needed today.”

The more popular Marinoff’s program becomes, the more it may invite skeptics. But clients say they don’t mind.

“Hey, whatever helps,” said a 36-year-old Maryland client of a philosophical counselor who asked not to be named. He sought help after his spouse died of cancer.

The client, who works at an Internet company, said philosophical counseling helped process his grief and shock — largely because he was so distracted by heavy reading assignments that included works by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Blaise Pascal.

“I felt like I was back in college. But I did learn one thing: Epicurus once said, ‘If a little is not enough for you, nothing is.’ That’s probably true of any kind of therapy.”

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