Munchausen Syndrome - Playing sick or a sick player

Updated on 10th December, 2022

Definition of Munchausen Syndrome (Factitious Disorder - Fake Disorder)

Why would you claim to be sick if you know yourself to be completely healthy? Illness is something the general population typically avoids or tries to treat when it happens. In some cases, people may pretend to be sick for practical reasons such as claiming benefits or leave from work.

Still, they will not pretend to be sick just to be sick. However, there is a small part of the population that will express these sorts of misleading behaviors and claim to have a fake illness that requires urgent treatment. These people suffer from what psychology manuals refer to as Munchausen syndrome.

Popping a pill for the wrong reason
Popping a pill for the wrong reason

It was named after a famous German aristocrat, Baron Munchausen, who entered the German aristocracy by telling outrageous tales of his military career that were undoubtedly false. Munchausen syndrome refers to the psychological disorder where someone pretends to be sick for attention from other people. It can also happen when individuals falsely present their children or other vulnerable relatives as being ill or mentally impaired. In this case, it is called Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

As it was with the long-deceased Baron Munchausen, those who possess this syndrome desire to be the center of attention to receive support and acceptance from the people around them. They will express a range of behaviors such as tampering with medical tests, consistent lying about illness, self-harming, and denying any truth when objectively presented to them. We could consider these people highly narcissistic and self-driven.

Sounds harmless, right? On the surface, it may look like attention-seeking people who will do anything just to get noticed, but that is precisely why it is crucial to treat it. More specifically, some people suffering from Munchausen syndrome will go so far as to convince hospitals to undertake a serious surgery on them to treat imaginary conditions. A parent with Munchausen’s could even make their children believe that they have a lifelong illness that cannot be cured.

The creative Baron Munchausen
The creative Baron Munchausen

After reading this article, you will have a deeper understanding of Munchausen syndrome and be aware of its various manifestations. First, we will go into detail and show you the astounding facts surrounding Munchausen syndrome, such as its various originating factors, symptoms, and behaviors. After this, we will give you a quick history lesson on how scientists discovered it and highlight some shocking cases that have appeared throughout history.

By the end of your reading, you will be able to apply your newfound knowledge to our Munchausen Syndrome Quiz to see how well you have processed the facts of this rare and serious mental illness.

A real illness, or self created?

What are the Symptoms and Behaviors of People with Munchausen Syndrome

People with Munchausen syndrome present a whole host of unusual symptoms and behaviors. Psychologists need to identify these because diagnosis and treatment are much simpler when the various causative factors of Munchausen syndrome are known. However, one thing is clear, people with Munchausen’s are extraordinarily crafty and efficient at hiding their lies or manipulations.

In most cases, even when doctors provide them with physical evidence that disproves their claims, they will continue their deception despite this. Their habit of constantly lying about illness makes it very challenging to identify whether someone is suffering from Munchausen syndrome or not, but here are a few good indicators according to psychologists:

Actively harming themselves in one way or another
They routinely try to get ill by inflicting wounds on themselves or ingesting various foods that might make them sick.

Extensive medical records from different hospitals in the area
People with Munchausen syndrome will spend years faking sickness in a specific hospital. Once it is discovered that they had been lying and were just pretending to be sick, they switch to another hospital and continue faking their illness.

Strong awareness and knowledge of different medical terms or diseases
In order to fake a wide range of symptoms, they actively study and memorize the small details surrounding various illnesses.

High enthusiasm towards undertaking medical testing or risky operations such as surgery
Typically, the average person is hesitant when they need to make a significant medical decision. However, people with Munchausen syndrome will leap at the opportunity to go through with most procedures and often present many surgical scars on their bodies as evidence of this.

No friends or family allowed
Munchausen victims will consistently refuse to allow family members or witnesses to interact with healthcare officials and provide a potentially contradictory claim to their lies.

Aside from these, there may be many more symptoms and behaviors that these people present. The bottom line is, however, that they all possess a desire to be believed that they are sick and will go to great lengths to convince others that they are right.

Shrouded in secrecy and a web of lies
Shrouded in secrecy and a web of lies

Origins and Causes of Munchausen Syndrome

Munchausen syndrome is very complex and not completely understood in psychology. The main issue surrounding it is the lack of knowledge about the origins of this disorder and what drives the behavior of people with Munchausen’s.

The thing with Munchausen syndrome is that the people who suffer from it are aware that they are faking illness and overtly deceiving others. Despite this, they do not understand the reasons for their behavior or even recognize that they have a problem. Basically, they think that they are completely fine and that all their actions are justified. Because of this, it is challenging to identify, let alone treat, this disorder in medical and psychiatric settings.

A challenging puzzle for doctors
A challenging puzzle for doctors

To combat this, psychologists have identified a few factors that may help them diagnose this disorder and find the most efficient ways to remedy the victims. We have listed some potential reasons why people develop Munchausen’s:

• Childhood Trauma
Many believe that childhood trauma such as parental neglect or abandonment could cause behaviors very similar to those expressed by people who have Munchausen’s. These behaviors could be self-destructive obsessions with the need to be the center of attention or the inability to take responsibility for your own wellbeing. Also, some evidence shows that exposure to medical procedures in childhood could lead to Munchausen syndrome in later adulthood because medical treatment was associated with care as a child. Similar feelings are sought after as an adult by pretending to be ill or playing a sick role.

• Personality Disorders
Different personality disorders were shown to be linked with Munchausen syndrome. For example, people with Munchausen’s are highly manipulative. They love to have power over others, much like those with antisocial personality disorder. It is also linked to narcissistic personality disorder, as Munchausen victims will try to satisfy their ego-driven needs and perceptions. It could also be that they have highly unstable identities and have difficulty forming relationships with others where the only way to do so is by faking sickness for acceptance and support.

Manipulative and antisocial traits
Manipulative and antisocial traits

However, let us be precise that these are merely suggestions put forward by medical professionals. In reality, the actual cause of Munchausen syndrome remains unknown according to research. It is also an extremely rare disorder, and due to the difficulty for many practitioners to diagnose Munchausen’s, we still do not know how many people in the world may have it. Remember what we mentioned previously? People who suffer from this disorder are ready to go to great lengths, such as using fake names and identities to deceive others. Place that on top of an almost unknown originating cause, and you can begin to see how complicated this entire disorder becomes.

History/Discovery of effect

British endocrinologist (i.e., someone who treats imbalances of hormones) Richard Asher discovered Munchausen syndrome in 1951. As we mentioned previously, he based the title of this disorder on Baron Munchausen, a German nobleman who would tell fantastic yet impossible stories about himself to enter the aristocratic social circles. The Baron would talk about how he traveled to the moon or rode cannonballs on the battlefield. Obviously, these stories were blatant lies. Therefore, remembering the Baron and his lies, Asher named this bizarre behavior on him where individuals would fabricate histories, feign symptoms and lie about a particular illness. Appearing in academic texts for the first time in 1951, Asher published in the British medical journal the following quote:

“Here is described a common syndrome which most doctors have seen, but about which little has been written. Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always traveled widely; their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful. Accordingly, the syndrome is respectfully dedicated to the Baron, and named after him.”

— British Medical Journal, R.A.J. Asher, M.D., F.R.C.P.

To this day, the term Munchausen syndrome is still widely common within popular culture and media due to some of the comedic connotations that are attached to it. However, many practitioners disliked the informal nature of the term, so it was officially rebranded as “factitious disorder imposed on self” and “factitious disorder imposed on another.”

All psychological diagnoses manuals use these terms to categorize Munchausen syndrome in victims. If you’re wondering what “factitious disorder” means, we have answered that question in the Q/A section at the end.

A factitious disorder of the mind
A factitious disorder of the mind

Munchausen Syndrome and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy Cases

Throughout the years, there have been some mind-boggling cases of Munchausen syndrome. Some vary in nature and can elicit emotions such as humor and pity, but others are so dark that they make the reader completely horrified. The following stories are a few cases of people with Munchausen syndrome. First, we will present a relatively harmless case of Munchausen syndrome and then expose the more horrific cases to demonstrate how dangerous this disorder can become.

Case 1: Suzy Bass was an American woman living in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2007, supposedly battling stage four breast cancer. Her condition allowed her to easily become a teacher at a private school where she was allowed ‘sick leave’ whenever she desired. At the time, nobody would have imagined that she could be faking sickness at work. Moreover, many community members raised charity donations to Bass by organizing runs, fundraising events, and even dedicating the school balls to her. It was even reported that she once called on all her close friends to her house one day so that she could make her last wishes known and leave the earth in peace. Of course, this would be extremely sad in most circumstances, except she was lying about being sick. Bass was ousted by people from another town that she had visited and pulled similar tricks on. It was later found that she had done this three times in three different towns. Funnily enough, Bass still maintains that she genuinely thought she was dying every time she faked her illness.

Case 2: Hope Ybarra was a woman from Texas who faked cancer symptoms for herself and then for her children when she was not receiving enough attention for her own ‘condition’. Her story is what we consider to be a Munchausen syndrome by proxy case. Ybarra had already pulled many stunts when she was faking her illness. She told the media that she had a miscarriage of twins and even bought herself a casket and burial space in a cemetery to convince others of her imminent death from being sick. When the attention for this weakened, she began to use her two daughters to continue the act. Ybarra convinced others that her first daughter had cerebral palsy, forcing her to wear ankle bracelets for years. In 2004, her second daughter was born prematurely. Ybarra used this to create a ruse where her daughter developed a chronic illness requiring consistent treatment. She went as far as to change test results, starve her daughter so that she would not gain weight, and remove blood from her, rendering her anemic. In 2010, Ybarra was sentenced to ten years in prison for her actions.

Case 3: Dee Dee Blanchard forced her daughter Gypsy to fake sickness throughout her teenage years. Gypsy took medications that she did not need. She was forced to pretend that she had muscular dystrophy and was told to undergo unnecessary surgeries. Throughout this time, Gypsy was also confined to a wheelchair whilst she could walk and run without any issue. To make matters worse, Gypsy had no idea what her actual age was as Blanchard consistently made her believe she was a decade younger than she actually was. This was torture, and when Gypsy finally realized this, she murdered her mother and stood trial for her crimes. To this date, Blanchard represents one of the most horrific Munchausen syndrome by proxy cases that can be observed and read about.

When you turn against yourself

Questions and Answers

What is Munchausen’s by internet?

This form of Munchausen’s syndrome relates to people lying about their illness on online forums and groups dedicated to ailments such as cancer or multiple sclerosis. This behavior is very harmful to people with actual illnesses as it demoralizes them. They never get to realize that it was actually someone who was faking an illness for attention and gathering support from other members. Some online posts that point towards a fake sickness or factitious disorder could include - copied text about the fake sickness that only explains general symptoms usually available on websites. This happens because the person is unable to write about any real symptoms that should have been experienced. Simulating illness for attention by showing the symptoms to be much worse than most people. Making claims about the factitious disorder that are hard to believe or cannot be substantiated with facts, such as undergoing treatment for a fake sickness through a treatment that does not exist in reality.

Can somebody be cured of Munchausen’s effect?

It is very difficult to treat people suffering from Munchausen’s effect, as they have been consistently faking an illness and are unwilling to accept that it does not exist. The first line of treatment is to identify whether the illness actually exists through tests and scans. In many cases, the patients have injured themselves over long periods of time trying to fake their illness, and this is usually treated through medicines and surgery. Finally, patients are treated with psychotherapy, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (which increase the feel-good chemical in the brain called serotonin), and antidepressants.

What is a factitious disorder?

A factitious disorder is a development of psychological or physical symptoms, for example, people with Munchausen syndrome. People with a factitious disorder crave attention and look for sympathy every chance they get. The best way to do this is by faking illness, for example, lying about having a serious illness like cancer. Even though they are faking the sickness, they start believing that they have a real sickness which requires a cure. A noteworthy point to be made is that if there is a secondary benefit such as money or avoiding responsibility for a criminal offense, that puts the factitious disorder into a different category called malingering which is intentionally done for personal gain.

Is lying about illness a common symptom of people with Munchausen syndrome?

Lying about illness is very common in people suffering from a factitious disorder such as Munchausen syndrome. They have a habit of faking illness for attention by creating stories of fictitious sickness and playing sick roles. Sometimes, they don’t even know that they are faking an illness.

Can we refer to Munchausen syndrome as the Munchausen effect?

You can use the term Munchausen effect to describe the syndrome to someone. However, using the words - factitious disorder imposed on self, factitious disorder imposed on another, factitious disorder by proxy, or factitious disorder if you don’t know the exact case of the person would be better to use in a professional and medical capacity.

Are there any incidents of child abuse by proxy for people with Munchausen syndrome?

Yes, we have written about the horrifying story of Dee Dee Blanchard, who faked sickness for her child.

Is Baron Munchausen a real person?

No, Baron Munchausen is the main protagonist in a book called “Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.” He was penned by the German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785. The character has become very popular since then. In fact, a movie called “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” was released in 1989, and it was rated highly by those who watched it.

Am I faking my mental illness?

Could you be a person who has Munchausen syndrome? Unfortunately, we can’t answer that for you, but we recommend you contact your local specialists if you have symptoms resembling Munchausen’s.

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