Dozens of leading professionals just slammed Theresa May’s controversial new mental health ‘guru’ [LETTER]

Theresa May Mental Health
Steve Topple

Over 60 medical professionals, campaigners and organisations have written to Theresa May, urging her to reconsider the appointment of a well-known professor to lead a review into the Mental Health Act 1983.

A long awaited review into mental health

May launched the Independent Review of the act on 4 October. The government claims it has concerns over:

  • Rising rates of detention under the act.
  • The disproportionate number of people from black and minority ethnic groups detained under the act.
  • Stakeholder concerns that some processes relating to the act are out of step with a modern mental health system.

It states that the review aims to:

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understand the causes of the issues outlined above, as well as any additional issues with the functioning of the act identified via consultation.

The review will work with stakeholders to make recommendations to government. The recommendations will be aimed at improving the treatment and support people receive when experiencing acute mental ill-health.

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Some of the solutions are likely to lie in practice rather than the legislation itself. The review should consider practice-based solutions wherever possible.

The review will help government create a forward-looking plan of changes to legislation and practice, resulting in an enduring legacy of mental health support.

But dozens of people are unhappy with May’s chosen Chair of the review. Prof Simon Wessely is a psychiatrist and resident academic at King’s College London. He was previously President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

An open letter

So people have penned an open letter to May, which The Canary is publishing in full. It states:

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to urge a reconsideration of the decision to appoint Professor Simon Wessely to lead the independent review of the Mental Health Act as announced at the Conservative Party [conference] on 4 October 2017.

A review is needed to address mental health injustice, yet Wessely’s body of work on ME [myalgic encephalomyelitis] (or ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’) demonstrates his lack of honesty, care and compassion for patients. His unsubstantiated claim that ME is driven by ‘false illness beliefs’ has led to patients being labelled as hypochondriacs, treated with contempt by some in the medical profession and stigmatised by society. His recommended treatment regime of Graded Exercise Therapy caused deterioration in function for nearly 50% of ME patients surveyed, yet he dismisses their evidence as unreliable and labels all critics of this work as irrational and extremist.

Wessely’s work on ME led him to play an active role, alongside insurance industry professionals, in devising the theories of ‘malingering and illness deception’ which underpinned the Work Capability Assessment. The WCA has had a catastrophic impact on the lives of disabled people. Wessely is resoundingly unfit to lead an inquiry into mental health injustice.

The appointment of Wessely underlines our fears that under the wrong leadership, the review and any subsequent changes to the Mental Health Act will worsen rather than alleviate the current mental health crisis. We urge you to rethink this decision.

Prominent names

You can read the full list of signatories here. But prominent names included:

  • Linda Burnip – Co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) (the group’s steering committee also signed).
  • Denise McKenna – Mental Health Resistance Network.
  • Professor Andrew Samuels – Former Chair, UK Council for Psychotherapy.
  • Anne Novis – Chair, Inclusion London.
  • Rich Moth – Social Work Action Network national steering committee.
  • Simon Duffy – Centre for Welfare Reform.
  • Tara Flood – CEO, Alliance for Inclusive Education.
  • Cathy Maker – Director, RUILS.
  • Kamran Mallick – CEO, Disability Rights UK.
  • Dr Jay Watts – Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist.
  • Bea Millar – Person-Centred Therapist.
  • Richard House – Chartered Psychologist and Mental Health Activist.
  • Paul Atkinson – UKCP Psychotherapist.
  • Joyce Kallevik – Director, Women in Secure Hospitals.
  • Eamon Andrews – Communications and Project Officer, Shaping Our Lives.
  • Andrew Lee – Director, People First.
  • Phil Gosling – Secretary, Regard.
  • Ian Parker – Psychoanalyst, Manchester.
  • Claire Glasman – WinVisible (Women with Visible and Invisible Disabilities)

You can read The Canary‘s analysis of the PACE trial that the letter cites here. And further reading on its claims about Wessely can be found here and here.

The professor responds

The Canary approached Wessely for comment. He told us, referencing the signatories to the letter throughout:

Your main criticism refers to my previous work in the area of ME/CFS. This is of course a controversial area associated with strong feelings and anger. I myself have been associated with the development of one particular approach to the illness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which was endorsed by NICE in 2007 as one of only two treatments that could be safely recommended to patients.

The other was Graded Exercise Therapy (GET). You are correct to note that as a practicing clinician in this area I do support the 2007 guidelines. I do not regard that as a failing. However, these are in the process of being updated, and if the recommendations change then like any responsible clinician I shall take due note. You also mention the 2011 PACE trial. I am aware of the criticisms, but yes, I still regard it as a well conducted trial. Here are my reasons:

http://www.simonwessely.com/Downloads/mentalelfPACEwessely.pdf.

‘Making preparations’

Wessely continued:

You also make allegations about my relationship with the insurance industry and DWP. These allegations have been made before, and I have responded to them here: http://www.simonwessely.com/index.php/misunderstandings-misperceptions-2/. On the other hand, during my time as President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, I did actively lobby against the proposals to link receipt of benefits to co operation with psychiatric or psychological treatments: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/29/coercing-people-mental-health-problems-work-treatment.

We are now starting to make preparations for the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act, announced two weeks ago. I am looking forward to chairing this review, although I am aware that this is a difficult and complex undertaking: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/professor-sir-simon-wessely/mental-health-act_b_18192476.html.

We will shortly be making clear how we intend to proceed, but I guarantee that we will do our best to ensure that the views of a very wide range of stakeholders will be heard, with a particular emphasis on those of service users and families. The reason for undertaking the review is simple – to try and make a positive difference to the lives of those who experience mental disorder and their families.

Listening to stakeholders?

Regardless of the rights and wrongs that both parties in this case detail, it is important that May listens to the concerns of the signatories of the letter to her. Because as her government said, the review should “engage widely with stakeholders”. And it would seem that many “stakeholders” have genuine concerns over the direction the review is taking.

Get Involved!

Read more from The Canary’s Discovery section.

– Support DPAC and the Mental Health Resistance Network.

Featured image via Flickr

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