“I have myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a truly trivialising name that belittles what I and other sufferers live with,” explains Jamison Hill, who, at the lowest point of his illness was bedridden, unable to speak, eat, or lift his head off the pillow.

There are plenty of people who suffer from similar, medically unexplainable illnesses. Neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan describes a patient she encountered who believed she was blind despite six months’ worth of tests showing there was nothing wrong with her eyes.

Anna Lyndsey, who mentions in her memoir that exposure to natural and artificial light makes her “burn with invisible fire”, voices the frustration such patients feel when their symptoms are dismissed by doctors.

“Somebody says to you, in the middle of all that suffering, ‘Well, you might not be aware of what you’re getting out of being in this position, but you’re getting something out of it, and you’re doing this to yourself.’”

Do psychosomatic illnesses represent a huge gap in current medical knowledge, or are they, as scientific bodies repeatedly argue, ‘all in the mind’?

Can the mind directly generate physical symptoms?

Dr. Dale Peterson, former president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians does not agree that physiological disease can be caused by mental factors. “Psychological and sociological dynamics may predispose an individual to illness or cause an illness to be much more severe, but other factors must be present to trigger the condition.”

Some widely known physiological conditions nowadays were previously thought to be confined to the mind. Multiple sclerosis was believed to be a form of ‘hysterical paralysis’ and asthma was blamed on overbearing mothers.

A 2011 study published in the Lancet suggested that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) could benefit people with ME. The findings widely influenced treatment recommendations, but prompted outrage from people suffering from ME and scientific bodies alike.

“Researchers argued that patients like me, who felt sicker after exercise, simply hadn’t built their activity up carefully enough. But I’d seen how swimming for five minutes could sometimes leave me bedbound, even if I’d swum for ten minutes without difficulty the day before,” said Julie Rehmeyer, who suffers from ME.

According to Jonathan Edwards, a professor emeritus of medicine at University College London, “They’ve set this trial up to give the strongest possible chance of there being a placebo effect that you can imagine.”

Ron Davis, director of the Science Advisory Board of the End ME/CFS Project also thinks that the study used too broad a definition of the disease that it likely included many patients who did not truly have ME/CFS.

Doctors admitting the unknown and supporting patients

Peterson believes that attributing a physiological illness to mental causes is merely “a professional way of saying I don’t have a clue!”

Unable to find a tangible source of patients’ symptoms, doctors may then attribute it to the mind. However, as O’Sullivan said regarding Yvonne’s blindness, “It was to her no less real.”

“Diagnosis starts from the principle that ‘everybody’s experience of illness is their own…moulded by life experience and personality’. If you take 100 healthy people and subject them to the exact same injury you will get 100 different responses. That is why medicine is an art,” she said.

“We talk about psychosomatic illnesses and the question is: What are we talking about? Is the mind something separate from the body?” quips Siri Hustvedt, who discusses the connection between mind and body in her book. “People do not like the idea of having a mental illness. The idea that it’s imaginary, that it’s not real.”

“It is belittling to those who suffer from physical illnesses,” said Hill. “Until the medical establishment realises that psychosomatic theory has no place in modern medicine, diseases like mine will continue to be stigmatised, trivialised, and dismissed.” MIMS

Read more:
The influence of word choices in patient-doctor communications
Understanding chronic fatigue syndrome and its link to healthcare professionals
Munchausen by proxy: The battle between doubt and the truth