Faking Illness Online
May 26, 2013

Faking Illness Online

Raise your hands if you know someone who fakes illness in order to gain attention. My hands are certainly up. These individuals might be suffering from Munchausen syndrome, which according to Mindhacks.com is a factitious disorder where people consciously fake illnesses for their own gain. Mindhacks.com reported about an article in February that discussed a new version of Munchausen called Munchausen by Internet, which is similar to regular Munchausen syndrome only the faking takes place online.

As Mindhacks.com wrote, “Obviously, this has been a problem for millennia but there has been an increasing recognition that the phenomenon happens online. People take up the identity of someone with an illness that gives them a special place in an online community…This could be a standard online community where their ‘illness’ becomes a point of social concern, or their pretense could allow them to participate in an online community for people with certain disorders or conditions.”

The article titled “Munchausen by Internet: Current Research and Future Direction” written by Andy Pulman and Jacqui Taylor was published by the US National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health. It outlined the different types of deception regarding health including malingering (deliberate behavior for known external purposes such as money, drugs, et cetera), Munchausen Syndrome, Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (when a parent or adult caretaker who repeatedly seeks medical attention for their children, whose symptoms they have faked or induced, sometimes causing real harm to the child’s health, and/or subjecting them to unnecessary investigations and interventions), Munchausen by Internet, and Munchausen by Proxy by Internet (both of these are like Munchausen and Munchausen by Proxy only taking place online).

Furthermore, Pulman and Taylor provided some advice for helping people detect Munchausen by Internet:

1. Posts consistently duplicating material in other posts, books, or health-related websites.

2. Characteristics of the supposed illness emerging as caricatures.

3. Near-fatal bouts of illness alternating with miraculous recoveries.

4. Fantastical claims, contradicted by subsequent posts, or flatly disproved.

5. Continual dramatic events in the person’s life, especially when other group members have become the focus of attention.

6. Feigned blitheness about crises that will predictably attract immediate attention.

7. Others apparently posting on behalf of the individual having identical patterns of writing.

Once one has been detected, the authors of the article also provided some advice for confronting someone posing with illness:

1. Let the patient know what you suspect but without outright accusation.

2. Support the suspicion with facts.

3. Provide empathetic and face-saving comments.

4. Avoid probing to uncover the patient’s underlying feelings and motivations so as to minimize disruption of emotional defenses that are essential to her function.

5. Assure the patient that only those who need to know will be informed of the suspicion of factitious disease.

6. Make sure the staff demonstrate continued acceptance of the patient as a person worthy of their help.

7. Encourage psychiatric help, but if the patient resists, do not force the issue.

What would cause one to fake illness in this way, I will never understand, but this article provided some really interesting information about Munchausen and Munchausen by Internet. It is definitely worth reading and learning from.

The prevalence of medical information on the internet has been a blessing in many ways. This syndrome is just one that makes it dangerous, unfortunately.

Image Credit: ULKASTUDIO / Shutterstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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