Munchausen’s Syndrome is a psychological illness, whereby the sufferer makes up stories about being ill and sometimes even induces symptoms on themselves. The condition should not be confused with hypochondria, which is also a psychological ailment primarily defined by a fear of illness – this leads to the sufferer interpreting normal bodily functions or minor aches as symptoms of something much more serious. Munchausen’s also has nothing to do with malingering – where a person fakes being sick in order to gain benefit, such as monetary compensation.
The condition gets its name from a German aristocrat called Baron Munchausen, who was well-known for telling wildly unbelievable stories about his past. The exact cause of the ailment is unknown and it has been found that people most affected by it include women between the age of 20 and 40 (often from a medical working background) and white, single men between the age of 30 and 50. It is unclear why this is.
Many people diagnosed with Munchausen’s refuse to accept they have it and any psychiatric help, so little is known about their motives and thought processes.
Although the exact causes are unknown, there are various theories as to what causes Munchausen’s. These include:
- Childhood trauma – perhaps resulting from parental abandonment or neglect. Unresolved issues can lead to masochism (a compulsion to punish oneself), by forcing illness for example, due to feelings of unworthiness. Being looked after in a hospital may bring on feeling of reassurance and care.
- Personality disorder – This is a type of mental health condition where an individual has a distorted pattern of thoughts and beliefs about themselves and others. This leads them to behave in ways that most people would regard as disturbed and abnormal.
What are the symptoms?
People with Munchausen’s Syndrome can show different types of behaviour, such as:
- Pretending to have psychological symptoms: for example, claiming to hear voices or claiming to see things that are not really there.
- Pretending to have physical symptoms: such as chest pain or stomach ache.
- Actively seeking to make themselves ill: such as deliberately infecting a wound by rubbing dirt into it.
Some people with the condition may spend years travelling from hospital to hospital and faking a wide range of illnesses. When it is discovered that they are lying, they may suddenly leave hospital and move to another district. They have the capacity to be very manipulative and, in the most serious cases, a person with the condition may undergo painful and sometimes life-threatening surgery, even though they know it is not necessary. There have been several cases where people have died due to complications arising from such treatment.
It is not exactly known how common Munchausen’s is because many sufferers successfully manage to convince medical professionals that they are actually ill. But it is also possible that the condition is over-diagnosed because the sufferer may travel from hospital to hospital.
How is it treated?
The outlook for Munchausen’s syndrome is mixed. Some people (usually women) with the condition will experience one or two episodes before admitting that they need medical help. However, others (usually men) will deny that they have a problem and therefore never get the medical help that they need.
Psychiatric treatment such as family therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy are usually used to treat the condition.