Mental Health and Philosophy of Mind

A philosopher has recently collaborated with a mental health organization to deliver a series of philosophy of mind workshops for people with an interest in mental health (including those with lived experience, mental health advocates, and service providers). 

The philosopher, Sophie Stammers, is currently a research fellow working on Project PERFECT (Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts), an interdisciplinary research project led by philosopher Lisa Bortolottti (University of Birmingham) which “aims to establish whether cognitions that are inaccurate in some important respect can ever be good from a pragmatic or an epistemic point of view.”

Dr. Stammers teamed up with Mind in Camden, a charitable organization that supports people who are struggling with mental health issues, to offer workshops that use themes from PERFECT’s research to explore and critique various theories of mental health that participants had come into contact with through their personal and professional lives.

Why do this? Dr. Stammers writes:

The research we’re doing at PERFECT challenges the perceived discontinuity between so-called normal and abnormal cognition, and the workshop series provides a philosophical framework for participants to critically question the “us” and “them” model of mental health that is entrenched in our discourse, and some of our mental health practices. The workshops are discussion driven, and encourage participants to reconstruct models of mental health that are philosophically founded, and that better support and include insights from lived experience. We had some very positive feedback from the original course participants, and I hope the resources will be of interest to many more people.

She has made the resources used during the workshop free to download from this site, including a facilitator pack, which offers guidance on how to present the material, and how to set up group discussion and participation. She adds:

The materials are designed so that they can be used by people who do not have any formal training in philosophy. There are also presentation slides and printable handouts for each session. The first session introduces some philosophical techniques and ideas, and the other five sessions explore the topics of Experiences, Beliefs, Rationality, Models of mental health, and Evaluating experiences and beliefs. For those looking to run a more stripped-down group, without focusing on the models and examples referenced in the slides and handouts, there is also a pack that explores the core questions and ideas of the workshop series.

I asked Dr. Stammers to elaborate on the relevance of Project PERFECT’s work to issues in the experience and treatment of those with mental health issues:

The idea was to use themes from PERFECT’s research to explore and critique various theories of mental health that participants had come into contact with through their personal and professional lives. Psychiatric theory and practice in a range of settings (and much philosophy inspired by it) often proceeds on the idea that there is a particular kind of irrationality that is associated with mental illness, the presence of which plays a significant role in determining a psychiatric diagnosis. Proceeding from an investigation into all kinds of epistemically faulty cognition, PERFECT demonstrates that irrationality is a common feature of cognition in both clinical and non-clinical contexts, and thereby argues that a demarcation between normal and pathological cognition cannot be meaningfully based on epistemic features.

PERFECT also challenges current accounts of epistemically faulty cognitions in the psychiatric literature, with a view to promoting accounts which are sensitive to the potential epistemic benefits of such cognitions, and to their role in supporting a unified and coherent sense of agency. Introducing this research to workshop participants provided a framework for challenging categorical accounts of illness that are dominant in psychiatric practice, and implicit in everyday language about mental health. The workshops provided the opportunity to reconstruct notions of illness and wellness instead as occupying space on a continuum, and furnished a philosophical foundation for outlining the potential benefits of factually erroneous cognitions that are underexplored in psychiatric practice, but which can constitute a deeply meaningful aspect of the lived-experience of mental distress.

It is an interesting project and, as far as I know, unique in its bringing together academics in philosophy and psychology together with mental health service providers, mental health patients, and the public.

Albrecht Durer, “Melancholia”

Beyond the Ivory Tower. Workshop for academics on writing short pieces for wide audiences on big questions. Taking place October 18th to 19th. Application deadline July 30th. Funding provided.
Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark Curtis
Mark Curtis
6 years ago

The phrase “the perceived discontinuity between so-called normal and abnormal cognition” gave me pause: I wonder to what extent the “abnormal cognition” of those traditionally labelled “mentally ill” plays the defining role as opposed to anomalous behaviour? One might, for example, suffer hallucinations and call them “visions” without attracting clinical attention. It is only when people begin to act out in response to unusual cognitions (such as increased salience in some instances of clinically defined paranoid schizophrenia leading to withdrawal or aggression) that such cognitions usually become pathologised. It might be interesting (and a potentially fruitful research project) to find out how many people in the general population routinely experience cognitions that could be regarded as anomalous without ever seeking professional help. Perhaps the difference that defines the boundary of mental illness lies as much in the domain of response to these false stimuli as to the possession of the stimuli themselves.