The CFS community bids a less-than-fond farewell to Dr. Stephen Straus, who passed away from brain cancer this week.
In 1988, Straus commented that CFS was a "psychoneurotic condition", and he spent the remainder of his career trying to prove it.
In researching what was then called "non-HIV AIDS", Straus found serious depletion of T4 cells. He nonetheless clung to the notion that this was a purely psychiatric condition, a rather odd stance for someone whose training was in virology.
His 1992 study demonstrated statistically significant, abnormally low levels of the critical hormone cortisol, precisely the opposite result that would have been expected if his theory of psychological causation had been accurate.
Straus demonstrably ignored the results of even his own research when it contradicted his prejudiced beliefs about the cause of CFS.
Straus's psychologic theory called for patients to heal themselves by reducing stress. However, Professor of Psychology Phyllis Chesney observes "I believe that CFIDS and other disabled patients are often subjected to a level of stress that is more than a healthy person can bear. It is stressful to be forced to cash in your life insurance policy, mortgage your home to the hilt, spend all your savings, borrow from everyone you know, be denied your rightful health and disability benefits or forced to fight for them precisely when you are totally incapacitated."
Professor Chesney continues "As a professor of psychology, a psychotherapist and courtroom witness, I am an expert in how frequently women are diagnosed as mentally ill when they are not. When I first explored sexist bias among mental-health professionals in Women and Madness in 1972, I did not realize that when western medicine does not understand and/or cannot cure an illness, it first denies that the illness is real by saying it is merely a psychiatric disorder. Once asthma, arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Lyme's disease, allergies and Gulf War Syndrome too -- were dismissed as primarily psychiatric in nature."
As technological advances led to the development of objective evidence, asthma, arthritis, lupus, MS, etc., were accepted as legitimate medical conditions. Theoretically, the same will eventually occur with CFS as the objective medical evidence becomes more widely-known.
Yet, Straus's legacy remains in the number of people whose only knowledge of CFS comes from his numerous public declarations that we're all (regardless of age or gender) "depressed menopausal women", "psychoneurotic" and "hypochondriacs". Only within the CFS community is it common knowledge that his own research proved him wrong.
As Prof. Chesney observes, many doctors will apply an erroneous mental illness diagnosis to a female patient rather than admit that they don't know what's wrong. It's been proven true time and again in the CFS community: seriously ill women are quickly labelled as depressed or hypochondriacs (whereupon the search for a physical cause for their symptoms ends) while less-afflicted men get a full medical work-up. Thanks to the 25-30% of CFS patients who are male, we know that the real problem is, according to the virologist who discovered the AIDS virus, "a virus we don't have a test for yet"; we know that brain scans find lesions similar to those in MS; we know the symptoms all have a neurological explanation.
No thanks to Straus or his hand-picked successor, a stress expert who also espouses a psychiatric explanation even when it requires him to ignore vast amounts of research proving there's a virus involved.
It's rather fitting that the man who insisted that our symptoms were all in our heads died of a problem that was all in his head.