Social Theory & Health

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 127–141 | Cite as

Contesting the psychiatric framing of ME/CFS

  • Helen Spandler
  • Meg Allen
Original Article


ME/CFS is a medically contested illness and its understanding, framing and treatment has been the subject of heated debate. This paper examines why framing the condition as a psychiatric issue—what we refer to as ‘psychiatrisation’—has been so heavily contested by patients and activists. We argue that this contestation is not simply about stigmatising mental health conditions, as some have suggested, but relates to how people diagnosed with mental illness are treated in society, psychiatry and the law. We highlight the potentially harmful consequences of psychiatrisation which can lead to people’s experiential knowledge being discredited. This stems, in part, from a psychiatric-specific form of ‘epistemic injustice’ which can result in unhelpful, unwanted and forced treatments. This understanding helps explain why the psychiatrisation of ME/CFS has become the focus of such bitter debate and why psychiatry itself has become such a significant field of contention, for both ME/CFS patients and mental health service users/survivors. Notwithstanding important differences, both reject the way psychiatry denies patient explanations and understandings, and therefore share a collective struggle for justice and legitimation. Reasons why this shared struggle has not resulted in alliances between ME and mental health activists are noted.


Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) Epistemic injustice Mental health activism Psychologisation Psychiatrisation Psychiatric field of contention 



This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social Work, Care and CommunityUniversity of Central LancashirePrestonEngland, UK
  2. 2.Independent researcherMytholmroydUK

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