By Keir Liddle
Simon Wessley, alongside Fang Shi-Min was awarded the inaugural John Maddox Prize from Sense About Science. A prize award to individuals for standing up for science rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest. Its emphasis is on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so.
Many bloggers reported on the awarding of this prize and it quickly became apparent why Wessley deserved it. Comments defaming and dismissing Wessley have appeared across the web. One such example is in the comment thread of this blog where Wessley himself has taken time to respond to allegations and join the discussion. You can see similar examples of attacks on his character and the behaviour of a small minority of CFS sufferers here, here and here.
Suffering as I do from my own mental health condition I despair at the attitude that seems prevalent in promoting the extreme ends of the CFS community to engage in such tactics and to feel the need to loudly denounce people who attempt to research the condition and develop treatments to assist them. It seems utterly born out of the idea that mental health issues are not real. That somehow saying someones problem is psychological means it is “all in their head” or that they are malingering.
This is roundly and resolutely bollocks.
I can understand how such attitudes develop. There is still a huge amount of stigma about mental illness within society. People fear telling their loved ones, colleagues and friends that they have a mental health problem. They fear they may lose their employment or become ostracised. But they don’t, by and large, devote large swathes of time to lobbying and bullying those who are trying to help them based upon the misguided, stigma led, notion that it is a bad thing to have a psychological illness or problem.
However I feel that for some it’s time to grow up. I feel it is time for people to accept that having a psychological problem does not mean “it’s all in your head”. We are are not living in some odd Cartesian world where a mind/body false dichotomy holds. We are made of meat: Mental illnesses are ultimately physical complaints. They can be disorders of thoughts located within our heads but not in our imaginations rather in our brains. They exist within a complex interplay of neurotransmitters, synapses and our physical environment.
Something being “all in your head” does not make it any less real, any less damaging or any less terrible.
I have a mental health problem. I feel no need to declare this is because of some physical defect or due to contracting some virus. I am not ashamed because my illness is very real: Almost viscerally so on occasion.
If you wish to hold to the ideal that your CFS is caused by some virus or similar than fair enough. But don’t trawl the internet to harass, bully, dismiss and defame those scientists, medical researchers and clinicians who disagree with you. Pour your energies into funding your own research. There will be scientists more than happy to take the money off your hands and undertake the research. They might not be world renowned, the more extreme of you may have poisoned the well in that regard, and they might not be able to tell you what you want to hear (reality tends not to conform to our personal desires and biases after all) but they would do the research for you.
But drop the stigmatising idea that there is some problem with an illness being mainly psychological in origin. All that means is that a different organ in your body is malfunctioning to the one you would like to think is.
And is that really so bad?