Wearing a Forced Smile

Time after time over the years, people with M.E. (myalgic encephalomyelitis) have had to put up with hearing total bunkum about their condition, but rarely does the ‘science’ get as flaky as last Thursday’s announcements on the ‘Smile’ Trial, a study which purported to assess the efficacy of the ‘Lightning Process’ for children with M.E. This process (known as LP for short) could be described as a cross between neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and amateur dramatics, or (to put it less kindly though perhaps more accurately) as a form of brainwashing.

The precise nature of LP is wreathed in secrecy and participants are told not to disclose the details. However, according to anecdotal reports, patients undergoing the process are told that they are responsible for their illness and are free to choose to live their life without it if they wish. They are told they can achieve this through LP but it will only work if they believe in it. Everything they think and say must be positive. They must tell everyone they are better. When they feel any symptoms or negative thoughts, they must stretch out their arms with the palms facing out and shout “Stop!” If the process doesn’t work, they’re doing something wrong: it is their fault if they’re still ill.

Can you guess what results this trial has achieved?

Well, the researchers reported that LP combined with standard medical care produced better results than standard medical care alone. If you look at how they assessed this, the outcome was scarcely surprising. In common with other similar trials assessing ‘psychological’ treatments for M.E. (including the controversial £5m publically funded PACE trial) it was unblinded and there was very little in terms of objective assessment of outcomes. The results were almost entirely assessed using self-completed questionnaires. So in other words what they did was to tell the children they were better and then ask them if they were better. Just in case this didn’t achieve the desired outcome, remember that the children had also been told that the process would only work if they believed in it and if they didn’t recover it would be their fault.

Remember too that these were children being questioned by adults in positions of perceived authority.

Now what was that answer again, children?

Apparently we are supposed to treat this extraordinary procedure as a piece of serious science. After all, we have the science editors at the BBC and the Guardian as our role models. As with the many previous papers from the PACE researchers and their colleagues, these so called professional journalists swallow the whole thing without so much as a grimace and repeat it all back just as they have been told it, like performing parrots. The source on which they rely to tell them what to think is the Science Media Centre, a shadowy organisation which purportedly exists to provide a balanced view of science but in fact appears to promote the agenda of vested interests: in this case those who have built careers on the backs of patients with M.E., promoting their unproven psychological theories, misdirecting patients and their families, and effectively diverting funds from much-needed biomedical research.

On top of all the nonsense they spouted in Thursday’s coverage about the trial itself, these ‘journalists’ have also been coached to repeat yet again the habitual misinformation about M.E. researchers being abused by patients, apparently to such an extent that most of them have left the field altogether. This simply isn’t true. While one or two psychiatrists have announced their retirement, at least one purportedly in fear of his life, this doesn’t seem to stop them continuing to write about M.E. or, in at least one case, issuing further papers on the subject. These accusations against patients reached their peak at the Freedom of Information Tribunal which released important data about the PACE Trial. The Tribunal ruled that the accusations had been greatly exaggerated. Apparently the sole piece of evidence produced for all the so-called threats was that one of the researchers had been heckled at a lecture.  In reality, while any abuse which may occur is regrettable, by far the bulk of what these researchers complain about is simply legitimate criticism about abysmal so-called ‘science’ such as the Smile trial.

Meanwhile, those scientists researching the biomedical roots of M.E., of whom there are many worldwide – though precious few in the UK where psychiatrists take most of the funding – get on extremely well with patients, who in many cases raise the money they need to do their work.

Though such research remains grossly underfunded, progress is slowly being made. As Prof Jose Montoya announced at a conference just last week, it is no longer true to say that this is a mystery illness. It is one whose pathogenesis is slowly being unveiled.

Only a small proportion of such progress is reported in the UK media. The Science Media Centre don’t tell the journalists about it and, it seems, they can’t be bothered to look for themselves.

To add to the misinformation: on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme (approx 7-50 am), lead Smile researcher Esther Crawley grossly misrepresented the patient support group the M.E. Association by claiming that they didn’t want M.E to be researched in children. In fact, their complaint was not against research for children with M.E. in general, but the Smile Trial in particular, which they considered to be unethical. I have to say that I agree with them. Children frame their view of the world at least partially according to what adults tell them, so for them to be told they are not ill, contrary to their own perceived experience and to what is now understood about the physical reality of this neuroimmune condition, appears to be a betrayal of their trust. Research evidence by VanNess et al, among others, strongly suggests that it is harmful for M.E. patients to ignore the way they feel and push themselves beyond their capability. This can bring about a long-term deterioration in their condition. Unlike adults, children have a good chance of making a full recovery if they are simply allowed to take the rest they need. To encourage them to ignore the way they feel, as does the lightning process, is therefore particularly unfortunate. It can push children who might otherwise have recovered into a lifetime of chronic illness.

This is not the only potential damage to children. Others have been driven into anxiety and depression under the pressure of being made to act as if they are well when they are not. Some have even attempted suicide under the strain of this.

The Guardian article reported that Esther Rantzen’s daughter Emily had been cured of M.E. by the Lightning Process: another piece of misinformation. It was reported some years ago that Emily actually had coeliac disease, not M.E., and she described the pressure of going for several years after her so called ‘recovery’ pretending she was well when she wasn’t:

“I’ve been used to secretly feeling I have to drag myself through life, forcing my body to be active and using mind over matter to ‘fake it till I feel it’. “

How many more children will be subjected to these various forms of harm following Thursday’s inaccurate coverage? And how long will it be till UK journalists start reporting M.E. responsibly?

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