An argument has erupted this week between UK psychologists and funders that has relevance for the problems we face with ME research. I sense a common purpose could create an unexpected alliance, with the aim of creating a more intuitive allocation of research funding.
A Bit of General Background
When I studied Health Psychology units we covered different perspectives or models of illness. The previously predominant model was the Medical Model which sees illness purely as a physical problem within a patient’s body waiting to be fixed by a doctor. In recent years the BioPsychoSocial Model has become widely accepted, particularly in psychology itself (I’ve written about this previously see here). This Model tries to hold in tension the complexity of health on different levels. For example, someone may have a condition that is somewhat genetic, triggered by something in the environment, exacerbated by stress at work and perpetuated by a lack of support from society. It is well accepted generally to say that you follow a BioPsychoSocial (BPS) Approach, which I think is worth saying because in the ME community this can seem like a swear word!
[Another model which isn’t so relevant here is the Social Model of Disability. In this view we are solely disabled by barriers in society. This could be lack of ramps, discrimination, poverty etc. It applies well to some disabilities but is a bit clumsy when applied to ME, in my opinion. It tends to be the main view of disability charities]
Following ongoing, rumbling tension a heated row has erupted between UK psychologists and funders this week. It is over the allocation of funding to mental illness research. Apparently funding bodies such as the Medical Research Council (MRC) have been allocating millions of pounds of funding to the biological side of mental illness and almost nothing to psychological or social elements. The figure quoted is that only 3% of funding goes to psychological research on mental illness. This is clearly counterintuitive. However valid the BPS Model is, it is at least relevant to study psychology in mental illness, as well as biology.
There are political and social justice implications to this bias, which are largely beyond the scope of this post. For example, if the main causes of depression are factors such as childhood trauma and unemployment then this can’t be fixed easily by cheap approaches such as CBT, it requires long term psychotherapy or massive feats such creating full employment.
Relevance to ME
Paradoxically and confusingly, using the BPS Model for ME has led to almost exclusively PsychoSocial research in the UK. From 1990 to 2012 no proper biomedical studies on ME/CFS were funded by the UK Medical Research Council. The MRC funded 5 small studies in 2012, but no further studies were funded in 2013 or 2014, clearly indicating to researchers that this continues to be an unsupported area to specialise in. The UK government spent more money on immediate repair of Eastbourne pier than 30 years of biomedical research for ME (thanks go to Graham McPhee for some of these statistics).
This focus on PsychoSocial research has often made people with ME furious* because we keep saying that we are not mentally ill. However, a tongue-in-cheek reading of the news this week may indicate funders don’t think it’s mental illness after all or we’d be getting biomedical research! Perhaps we’ve been barking up the wrong tree…
My more serious reaction to hearing this news piece on the radio as I was waking up, was that there seems to be some potential for alliance here. These Clinical Psychologists (such as Peter Kinderman and Richard Bentall) have the same objections as us, but from the other side of the fence. They would want the PsychoSocial funding that gets given to ME research and their biological research into genetics and neurology would be invaluable in ME. Could there be some sort of joint petition or campaign to allocate funding more intuitively, or to divide BioPsychoSocial funding so that it can’t be predominantly one aspect, or so that the majority of funding should be in the area which is most relevant to a given condition? I’m not sure how to go about setting this in motion, perhaps you have ideas?
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