Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers

Emily Wax

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.”

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