Latimer: The difficulty discovering and treating Munchausen syndrome

Munchausen syndrome occurs when an individual with a very deep need for attention pretends to be sick.

One of the more difficult mental illnesses to discover or treat is known as Munchausen syndrome.

Munchausen syndrome occurs when an individual with a very deep need for attention pretends to be sick in order to get comfort, sympathy and treatment from medical professionals.

Often, people affected by Munchausen syndrome go to great lengths to be credible in faking their illness. They learn many details about the condition, its symptoms and treatments and can go so far as to tamper with diagnostic tests, purposefully injure themselves or subject themselves to unnecessary surgeries or other uncomfortable interventions. All of this in the quest to further their story and gain the medical attention they desire.

Munchausen syndrome is different from hypochondriasis because the Munchausen patient is truly faking and doesn’t actually believe they have an illness. It is also different from simple medical fraud because a person with Munchausen is not going to these lengths in pursuit of financial or other gain. They have a psychological need for the attention, sympathy and comfort they receive from caring medical professionals.

A related but separate condition is called Munchausen syndrome by proxy. This usually occurs when a parent or guardian causes their child to be treated for a non-existent illness. In these cases, the parent either fakes or causes injury or illness to the child or other dependent thus compelling him or her to be treated as a patient.

Recently, the idea of Munchausen by Internet has been gaining some popularity as well as media attention. This is due to the growing number of people faking illnesses online to gain support and sympathy through social media and online support groups. There have been some reported cases where a person has fabricated an entire character complete with family members and friends just to produce a believable story for online acquaintances. Not surprisingly, when these instances are discovered, the people who have been duped into believing the story are usually very upset and feel deeply betrayed.

Risk factors for developing Munchausen syndrome include childhood trauma or growing up with caregivers who were emotionally unavailable. It is also very common for individuals with Munchausen syndrome to experience another co-existing mental illness such as depression or an anxiety disorder.

Unfortunately, Munchausen syndrome is very difficult to treat. This is due in large part to the great lengths people with this condition will go to in order to avoid detection. Deception is at the heart of this illness.

If you suspect a loved one may have Munchausen syndrome, a few symptoms to look for include: dramatic stories about multiple medical problems; frequent hospitalizations; vague or inconsistent symptoms; eagerness for frequent tests or risky procedures; extensive knowledge of medical terminology; seeking treatment from many different doctors or health centers; reluctance to allow health professionals to talk with family or friends.

Blunt confrontation will likely cause stress and defensiveness in a person with Munchausen syndrome. Instead, try to have a gentle conversation about your concerns and avoid appearing angry or judgmental. Support, care and gentle direction toward psychological help are likely the best way forward. In cases where there is another mental illness such as depression, it can be very helpful if this condition is managed as well.

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