With the increasing focus on mental health issues as a response to the growing need for emotional support, taking things philosophically has taken on new meaning.  The movement towards incorporating philosophy into formal therapeutic counselling could be said to have started with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT.  The closer examination of behaviour versus outcome and the realignment of the former is in keeping with the Greek philosophical dictum of know thyself .  Philosophical counselling is therefore reducible to imparting ‘wisdom’ where wisdom consists of useful knowledge in dealing with the challenges and obstacles of life based upon the experience of others and oneself.  Looked at in this manner, perhaps philosophy is inherently therapeutic and therapies are inherently philosophical.

Language, as analytical philosophy has taught us, can be systematically misleading and it is often the case that an analysis of the words we use can in itself clarify the nature of the problem and direction of the discussion.  Words such as ‘therapy’ have certain associations with health care professionals.  However, a closer examination of the meaning and application of this word indicate that those associations obscure rather than clarify the term.  If one substitutes the phrase ‘helpful advice’ there is no loss in meaning and suddenly all manner of human interactions can be viewed through a ‘therapeutic’ lens.  Helpful advice can be divided into two aspects which reduce to ‘cope’ or ‘cure’ or  combinations thereof.    Ideally, we would like to be able to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ a problem.  However, this is not always possible in which case the focus becomes on coping with a situation or problem.  A new offshoot of CBT called DBT or Dialectical Behavioural Therapy places considerable stress on endurance of suffering as opposed to a belief that it can be eliminated.  To this end, it employs such techniques as meditation and mindfulness as coping strategies — 

strategies that are far from recent inventions.   Suffering in one form or another has  been a constant in human existence and enduring it in the interests of survival its ultimate objective.

There is little doubt that the need for self-counselling and receiving helpful advice from others are also as old as the species itself.  From crouching in caves while listening to cracks of lightening and booms of thunder, to the the roar of animals to the modern anxiety of having our latest Iphone hacked, human emotions have remained unchanged even though the sources of their stimulation may have.  Emotional coping and self-regulation have always been primary aspects of what it is to be human.  There is also little doubt that while our primary emotions are fixed, their permanence is a testament to their ultimate survival value and little is retained by nature that does not contribute to that end.  Anxiety is as useful and healthy an emotion as is the sensation of pain.  However, It is ultimately a question of what responses and behaviours are elicited by them that determines  their usefulness.

The current fashion of speaking of mental health as well as physical health have placed both aspects of human existence under the authority of health care professionals.  I would suggest however that of all aspects of dealing with ‘health’, mental health including psychiatry and psychology are the most primitive and correspondingly the most pretentious.  Having originated within philosophy before being launched as ‘scientific’, they have acquired a simplicity of understanding at the expense of ignoring the underlying assumptions that have made these reductions possible.   The practices of psychiatry even a few years past are now seen as primitive and absurd.  The current use of some drugs may at some future date seem as absurd as electric shock therapy and ice baths.  Neurology when it is honest, shows that the complexity of the human brain is not like a computer, indeed a computer is a weak reflection of the human brain.

Sigmund Freud acknowledged almost a century ago the problematic aspects of defining sanity and it is a current irony that statistical normalcy constitutes a small percentage of the population.  Mental health is currently oriented around the lens of ‘dysfunctions’ which is to say the lack of ability to adapt successfully to a specific environment or context.  From a purely Darwinian perspective, this reduces to the ability to survive.  However, unlike Darwin, this is a perspective based solely upon individual survival rather than that of the species.  Successful adaptation is ultimately dependent upon predictability and stability.  Within a natural environment and barring natural disasters such as comets and climate change, there is a certain inherent stability.  Within specific social environments however, such stability is short lived and does not provide such a comparatively stable background.  

As such, the ability to successfully adapt to circumstances is time and place specific as are the values and beliefs that support those behaviours.  Behaviours leading towards successful survival being therefore specific to context render them incapable of universalization as norms.  Inherent in this analysis is the spectre of cultural relativism which is tantamount to the assertion that right and wrong are a question of mutual consent and agreement.  If at a certain time in a certain place there are shared values, beliefs and customs, then clearly that society will consider compliance to be the right thing to do and non compliance to be the wrong thing to do.  A universal code may have an aspirational reality but as of now little practical reality.  The only universal constant that may be identified with confidence within the immediate present is the ability to accommodate changed circumstances with changed behaviours.  Adaptability implies an acknowledgement of the world as it is independent of our wishes and the ability to rationally adjust in the present to imminent change rather than to depend upon the stored wisdom of instinct.  

But what of successful adaptation within a social circumstance that is itself unsustainable?  It is clearly possible to successfully adapt within a context that is itself not ultimately sustainable.  I would call this an example of micro-adaptability.  The issue of ultimate adaptability could therefore be referred to as macro-adaptability. The relation between the two falls within the realm of philosophical inquiry and brings to light also the aspirational quality of existence.  The difference between adapting to things as they are and the alternative realm of adapting to things as they ultimately could or should be,  allows for successful adaptation in the one realm despite being excluded from the other with the reverse being equally true.  Ideally of course, the two would not be mutually exclusive.  

From the point of view of mental health, such a distinction is important though it is not immediately obvious that this is so.  Much of human distress results from a reluctance to see things as they are as opposed to things as they should be both at an individual as well as a collective level.  This dialectic in an integral part of human existence representing almost equally both strength and vulnerability.   Given the ongoing  conflict inherent in human existence, the mental health model of ‘curing’ diseases is not as applicable as it is to physical health in that the majority of life’s problems are subject not so much to solutions to remove them as they are to the adaptation of coping strategies to teach us to tolerate them.  It is true that we as individuals can make things worse, but many situations are not resolvable in terms of making the problems or issues go away.  There are many occasions where it is clear that whereas we cannot make things better, we most certainly can make things worse.  There is inherent in the expression of taking things philosophically a kind of resignation to forces greater than ourselves to control or direct.  

Looking at the big picture can become the means of putting the little picture into perspective.  The philosopher Bertrand Russell referred to this as The Doctrine of Cosmic Piety.  Whenever depressed and overwhelmed he would consider himself as a small speck on a small planet in a vast universe.  His personal problems paled in comparison and became insignificant.  Seen in this way, perhaps self-absorption is the greatest enemy of happiness and it could be argued that it is equally the most serious pandemic of the 21st century.  The cult of individualism and freedom of expression that characterized Western civilization has given way to the pursuit of selfishness.  Selfishness is a prison of its own manufacture and unhappiness its offspring.