July 13, 2009

Munchausen by Internet

Many of us regularly engage with our community via emails, listservs and chat rooms. If you are like me, you proceed on the assumption that those you are in contact with share the same condtion. After all, why would anyone lie about that! Still, it is important for all of us to be aware that there are some folks who, for their own very deep seated reasons, fake symptoms and tell us stories to belong.
Marc D. Feldman is a prominent American psychiatrist who has written extensively on the problem Munchausen's disease. Since many of us participate with online communities and chat room, I thought it might be interesting to read some of what the good doctor has to say on the subject. You never know when it might come in handy... So, with permission, I have taken the liberty of lifting a couple of passages Dr. Feldman wrote on the subject. I have included references at the end, and, if you double click the title of this post, it will take you to the page online from which the material was gleaned.

For decades, physicians have known about so-called factitious disorder, better known in its severe form as Munchausen syndrome (Feldman & Ford, 1995). Here, people willfully fake or produce illness to command attention, obtain lenience, act out anger, or control others. Though feeling well, they may bound into hospitals, crying out or clutching their chests with dramatic flair. Once admitted, they send the staff on one medical goose chase after another. If suspicions are raised or the ruse is uncovered, they quickly move on to a new hospital, town, state, or in the worst cases — country. Like traveling performers, they simply play their role again. I coined the terms "virtual factitious disorder" (Feldman, Bibby, & Crites, 1998) and "Munchausen by Internet" (Feldman, 2000) to refer to people who simplify this "real-life" process by carrying out their deceptions online. Instead of seeking care at numerous hospitals, they gain new audiences merely by clicking from one support group to another. Under the guise of illness, they can also join multiple groups simultaneously. Using different names and accounts, they can even sign on to one group as a stricken patient, his frantic mother, and his distraught son all to make the ruse utterly convincing.

Based on experience with two dozen cases of Munchausen by Internet, I have arrived at a list of clues to the detection of factititous Internet claims. The most important follow:

  1. the posts consistently duplicate material in other posts, in books, or on health-related websites;
  2. the characteristics of the supposed illness emerge as caricatures;
  3. near-fatal bouts of illness alternate with miraculous recoveries;
  4. claims are fantastic, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved;
  5. there are continual dramatic events in the person's life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention;
  6. there is feigned blitheness about crises (e.g., going into septic shock) that will predictably attract immediate attention;
  7. others apparently posting on behalf of the individual (e.g., family members, friends) have identical patterns of writing.
Feldman, M.D. (2000): Munchausen by Internet: detecting factitious illness and crisis on the Internet. Southern Journal of Medicine, 93, 669-672
Feldman, M.D., Bibby, M., Crites, S.D. (1998): "Virtual" factitious disorders and Munchausen
by proxy. Western Journal of Medicine, 168, 537-539
Feldman, M.D., Ford, C.V. (1995): Patient or Pretender: Inside the Strange World of Factitious Disorders. New York, John Wiley & Sons


Harold Knight said...

My goodness! I find it so difficult to write the truth about my TLE that I cannot imagine how anyone could possibly make up the symptoms. At any rate, thanks for the advice.

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