'It's All in Your Head' by Suzanne O'Sullivan wins Wellcome Book Prize 2016

Consultant neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan was awarded the £30,000 Wellcome Book Prize 2016 for It’s All in Your Head, her journey through the world of psychosomatic illness, published by Vintage.

The announcement was made by acclaimed author, journalist, broadcaster, and chair of this year’s judges, Joan Bakewell DBE, at a special ceremony held on Monday 25 April, in Wellcome Collection's Reading Room. The £30,000 prize celebrates the best new books, published from 1 January 2015 to 31 December 2015, that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.

It’s All in Your Head is O’Sullivan’s first book, a focused look at the range of debilitating illnesses that are medically unexplained. We all exhibit physical responses to emotion – from blushing and laughter, to palpitations and stomach-ache – yet sometimes these expressions can be much more debilitating, causing seizures, paralysis, and even blindness, and the stigmatization associated with such a diagnosis is profound.

As many as a third of people visiting their GP have symptoms that don't appear to have an obvious medical cause. Merging autobiography with absorbing case histories taken from her clinical experience, O’Sullivan’s work spotlights an area of increased attention in medical science – the boundaries between what afflicts the body and the mind and how deeply related the one is to the other. 

The 2016 prize was judged by a panel comprising chair Joan Bakewell; Frances Balkwill OBE, Professor of Cancer Biology at Barts Cancer Institute and an author of science books for children; writer, columnist and salonnière, Damian Barr; award-winning novelist, Tessa Hadley; and award-winning journalist and author, Sathnam Sanghera.

From a broad field of submissions, including an exceptionally strong shortlist, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All in Your Head was unanimously chosen as our winner of the Wellcome Book Prize 2016.

“It is a truly impressive book, chosen for its many virtues. Suzanne O’Sullivan is a consultant neurologist and her first-hand accounts of diagnosing her patients offer new insights into the relationship between the body and the mind. The fact that society divides them into two medical disciplines - the physical and the mental - is being increasingly challenged. O’Sullivan’s book brings to light important examples of how the two inter-relate.
— Joan Bakewell, chair of judges
We are delighted that the judges have unanimously chosen to reward the Wellcome Book Prize 2016 to Suzanne O’Sullivan’s absorbing and beautifully written It’s All in Your Head. O’Sullivan’s book is a thoughtful, humane and heartfelt plea for a deeper and more widespread understanding of the intensely debilitating conditions she describes. An honest and revealing exploration of an area of healthcare where there is still much that is not yet known, this book reminds us forcibly of the complexities of the relationship between mind and body, and that the practice of medicine necessarily remains an art as well as a science.
— James Peto, Head of Public Programmes, Wellcome Collection

Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, James Peto, said:

Suzanne O’Sullivan has been a consultant in neurology since 2004, working first at the Royal London Hospital and today as a consultant in clinical neurophysiology and neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. She also works for a specialist unit based at the Epilepsy Society. Alongside her work with those suffering from physical diseases, she has developed expertise in working with patients with psychogenic disorders.

It’s All in Your Head rose to the top of an exception shortlist, comprising five other works of fiction and non-fiction: The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (Canongate); Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss (Granta); Playthings by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press); The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (Picador); Neurotribes by Steve Silberman (Allen & Unwin). As a group, the titles represent a collective conversation on medicine in literature today, demonstrating the wealth of human experience this cultural sector explores.

Last year’s prize was awarded to Marion Coutts for her critically lauded memoir, The Iceberg. Previous winners of the Prize also include: Andrew Solomon for Far From the Tree: Parents, children and the search for identity in 2014, Thomas Wright for Circulation in 2012, Alice LaPlante for Turn of Mind in 2011, Rebecca Skloot for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010, and Andrea Gillies for Keeper: Living with Nancy – A Journey into Alzheimer’s in 2009.

This year’s shortlisted writers have benefitted from the broad marketing, retail and events platform the Wellcome Book Prize offers, including a promotion with The Reading Agency reaching over 300 libraries UK-wide; marketing support across Foyles, Blackwells and over 300 independent bookshops across the country via Gardners and the Booksellers Association; plus spotlight events in the run up to the winner announcement and beyond at Wellcome Collection, 5x15 Stories, and Hay Festival.

For more information, please visit www.wellcomebookprize.org or follow us on Twitter @wellcomebkprize