Jennifer Brea's powerful film Unrest exposes the reality of Myalgic Encephalopathy or ME. This condition leaves people utterly exhausted, or as Brea puts it, like a broken battery, unable to charge beyond 10%.
Picture Courtesy of Jennifer Brea and Shella Films
ME is poorly understood and receives minimal research. Brea was repeatedly misdiagnosed and, on one occasion, even told that it was all in the mind - the result of some long-forgotten trauma.
Eventually Brea discovered that there was not only a name for her condition but that there are millions of other people suffering with ME. With the correct diagnosis she has managed to reduce the impact of ME on her life, but she also came to understand how this real disease creates double-barrelled suffering: first, it devastates your life by robbing you of energy; second, the failure of society to respect the reality of your illness makes you invisible and defenceless.
So, why has ME been so badly misunderstood?
Dr Charles Shepherd explains that in the UK two psychiatrists played a particularly damaging role, by treating an outbreak of ME (within a hospital) in 1955 as an example of hysteria. This dangerous desire to solve a problem by evading the problem, has been made all the easier by the emergence of something called the biopsychosocial (BPS) model: this is an all encompassing framework for rethinking illness - making it part biological, part mental, part social. This may seem reasonable, but it easily becomes a way of blaming the victim and claiming it's all in the mind.
The PACE Scandal also demonstrates the powerful forces at work. PACE was a research programme to test two 'therapies' for people with ME - Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Graded Exercise Therapy (GET). Although these therapies did not prove effective, researchers amended the rules of the evaluation so that people who had got worse were counted as having benefited from these therapies.
Outside the UK the PACE research has been severely criticised; but the Countess of Mar believes that the UK media has been frightened into silence by the Science Media Centre whose board members include Sir Simon Wessely, one of the psychiatrists connected to the PACE scandal. Even more disturbing is that Mrs May has now asked Wessely to lead an Independent Review of the Mental Health Act 1983 - a decision heavily criticised by independent advocates.
The UK Government also seems to have a stake in maintaining the belief that ME is all in the mind. Mo Stewart, in her book Cash Not Care, has shown how the US Insurance Company Unum has promoted the BPS model within the DWP, encouraging the UK Government to reduce disability benefits in order to grow the market for their own disability insurance products. Lord Freud cited the PACE research as important evidence to justify the use of BPS in their welfare 'reforms' and medical diagnoses have now been replaced with dubious catch-all assessments of 'readiness for work' or 'level of help.' The film I, Daniel Blake accurately captures many of the horrors of these mindless and inhuman processes.
Fortunately, in the USA, researchers are now taking ME seriously, and making important progress. CBT and GET are no longer recommended as helpful therapies and instead there is increasing recognition that excessive exercise can be extremely dangerous. The level of research is still inadequate, but no one doubts the reality of the illness and important and revealing tests have been developed.
Brea's film, which is winning awards and being widely seen, may help undermine the resistance of the UK establishment, but there is still a long way to go. Even if there are research breakthroughs people will still be living with the disabling consequences of ME. It is for this reason that the Centre for Welfare Reform is supporting the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project. Our aim is to help the community of people suffering from chronic illnesses (including, but going beyond, ME) to find their own voice, to build alliances with other disabled people and to ensure that they are no longer invisible before the eyes of the powerful.