Professor Wessely and military psychology

Professor Simon Wessely has worked for many years to discredit M.E. and Gulf War Syndrome as physiological illnesses, often using extremely ugly tactics. In 2000, Wessely authored a “Guide to Mental Health in Primary Care” which was subsided by the UK Department of Health. This stated that M.E. was a mental illness, intimating that this was its WHO classification. The World Health Organisation released a statement to repudiate Wessely’s false statement. (M.E., known in the WHO classification as Benign myalgic encephalomyelitis, is listed under the diseases of nervous system as G93.3, i.e., a neurological disorder.)

It is interesting to read a recent interview to gauge his working methods:

With his interest in mental illnesses and history, Prof Wessely said, “One of the delights of working with the armed forces is that they are great respecters of history and tradition.” He teaches a course on the history of war and psychiatry and has co-authored a book on the history of shell shock, called Shell Shock to PTSD: Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War.

In the management of shell shock, Prof Wessely said that people do not often have psychological problems that need counselling. He reiterated: “There is a general professional tendency to underestimate the resilience of normal people. Hence, when a bomb goes off, of course there will be chaos and trauma – but that’s a normal human reaction.”

References to the reactions of ordinary people to the Blitz –they didn’t need counselling! – and the seeming inference that sufferers from PTSD (“shell shock”?) don’t either, arguably create the impression that those with certain psychological illnesses not immediately apparent should just stiffen their collective upper lip.

Hence Wessley’s explanation for GWS, that “[a]fter the war, rumors reaffirmed the social bond among returning vets and helped them to shape a bewildering array of physical and psychological symptoms into the common burden of Gulf War Syndrome”. Objectively, this is less convincing than the soft-sell quoted above – so much so that he is not nearly so vocal about it as about M.E., where, to a large extent, his P.R. about hysterical, over-imaginative viragoes has the media currency he evidently intends it to.

As summed up by Margaret Williams this is the attitude of Wessely and his supporters towards M.E. sufferers :

“CFS/ME” is a psychiatric disorder and that cognitive behavioural therapy/graded exercise therapy (CBT/GET) is an effective measure that should be used to modulate patients’ maladaptive perception that they are suffering from a physical disorder

and that to say otherwise is to pander to patients. Influential it may be, but this ideology is just the nonsense it appears. Imagine suggesting this regimen to MS patients, and the outrage that would ensue!

Wessely courageously arms himself against criticism by alleging that he is the victim of a hate campaign by M.E. patients, what The Guardian newspaper referred to as a “vendetta”. In response to new research into M.E., which gives credence to the long-held belief that a virus may be responsible, Wessely stated earlier this year that “[w]e’re not going to go doing more and more tests to find out what was the virus because, frankly, even if we found it there’s nothing we’re going to do about it. We’re in the business of rehabilitation.” One might therefore suggest that what Wessely refers to as “hate”, most other people know better as “facts”.

Given his close work with the military, and given the military’s record in relation to PTSD sufferers (and this has applied widely, not just in the country where Wessely is based) the reliability of his conclusions should be questioned.

According to the Irish Medical Times, “Prof Wessely will speak at the Founder’s Day Lecture ‘Blitz to Bin Laden’ at St Patrick’s University Hospital on September 17. His lecture will be followed by a debate that ‘This House believes that Hospitals have no part in Mental Health Services’. Both are open to the public.” St Patrick’s is near St James’s Hospital in Dublin 8.

More on the ‘Oxford criteria’ for ‘CFS’ as used by the Wessely school.

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