Simon Wessely gets courage award (from a bunch of his mates)

Picture of Simon WesselyOn Wednesday, Simon Wessely, notorious for promoting psychological theories about ME, was jointly awarded a new prize for courage in “standing up for science” by Sense About Science. Nature published the statement by the person who nominated him, who claimed that Wessely had developed CBT-based treatments which “in many cases brought about substantial improvement and in some was life transforming” and for his pains had been subject to “continued abuse and obstruction from a powerful minority of people who, under the guise of self-help organizations, have sought to promote an extreme and narrow version of the disorder”. The ‘abuse’ included death threats, hostile letters, mischeivous complaints and “bogus questions” in Parliament. He shared it with one Fang Shi-min, a Chinese scientist who exposed quacks who sell bogus remedies in China and has criticised official support for traditional Chinese medicine; it is alleged that “thugs hired by a urologist attacked Fang with a hammer and, according to Fang, tried to kill him”.

Perhaps there are people who have shown extraordinary courage in standing up for science against quackery or fanaticism — the farmers who bred guinea pigs and faced a campaign of genuine intimidation from animal rights fanatics are an example. But they are farmers, not scientists. Wessely has been widely promoted in the media and his opponents maligned repeatedly. This is not uncommon in the western media: people with a high profile and powerful friends who have offended huge numbers of people are lauded for their “courage” when their opponents react. They can also, in some cases, use anonymity to spread lies about a group of people and then plead “you know what they do to …” when asked to prove themselves. Wessely can get a platform in the “respectable” print media a lot more easily than the ME community can; it has to make do with the occasional printed letter, except when there’s a peg to hang an ME story on (e.g. assisted suicide in the case of Lynn Gilderdale).

There is an obvious conflict of interest in this award: Wessely himself is on the board of advisors to the organisation. Also on that board is Prof. Colin Blakemore, who was also a judge on this award, who has praised Wessely in writing in the recent past. So, although Blakemore is only one of several (it seems four) judges, the fact that he was already biased in favour of a nominee (it does not list who the other nominees were, if there were any) does not lend it much credibility — rather, it gives the impression of an all-chums-together affair.

The unnamed person who nominated Wessely claimed that Wessely’s detractors promote “an extreme and narrow version of the disorder, which “repudiates any psychological or psychiatric element to the extent that psychiatry is viewed as a contemptible discipline, which, by association, denigrates psychiatric patients”. Again, we have the accusation that ME advocates promote or are motivated by “mental health stigma”, but the main wrong about this statement is that ME is in fact an organic neurological disease and not primarily a psychiatric complaint. Wessely protests that psychiatric treatments can help people with some organic neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, but it is not claimed that Alzheimer’s is a psychiatric complaint; rather it is a neurological degenerative disease which has some psychiatric symptoms. ME is not usually treated as a psychiatric disorder requiring medication but rather a psychological or behavioural disorder, and very often a trivial one in which the patient is seen as wasting people’s time.

Furthermore, the community do not primarily object to people being treated with psychiatric medications if necessary, but with treatment on psychiatric units, often closed, often at the cost of separation from their parents and other family when they are very ill and frightened, and sometimes in the company of disturbed or mentally-ill patients. In some cases, patients have been forced into psychiatric units against their will when they failed to accept doctors’ suppositions that their condition was in the domain of psychiatry; children have been taken from their parents when they refused to accept exercise-based or CBT-based ‘treatment’ when they could tell it was ineffective or harmful. In other words, Wessely has enabled the abuse of patients, including children.

The award was given on the same day as the funeral of a long-suffering ME patient, Emily Collingridge, was held in South London. Emily was a regular patient at King’s College hospital, where she died on 18th March this year, and where Wessely works as “professor of psychological medicine”. I am not convinced that the date of the award was chosen deliberately to coincide, but Wessely will have known of Emily, surely, as one of his friends, Esther Crawley, works for AYME which published her book. Emily had very severe ME, having been mostly or completely bedridden for more than ten years, and suffering two terrible relapses, the second of which eventually killed her. There have been a number of patients in that or a similar condition and many of them have tales to tell of abuse or dismissive treatment from doctors who regarded their condition as false, despite their obvious and measurable physical illness. Some would not have got so ill if it had not been for admission to noisy, brightly-lit and chemical-laden hospitals, and if they had, they might not have had to deal with trauma on top of severe physical illness including pain, nausea and paralysis; if the evidence of viral involvement were taken more seriously, a viable treatment might have been developed in the 90s or even earlier. This is Wessely’s gift to the ME sufferer and this is why he is hated.

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