Factitious disorder, also known as Munchausen’s Syndrome, involves a patient feigning illness or inducing symptoms in order to play the role of a sick person. With more online health information sites and support forums available, some people are misrepresenting themselves as being ill online.
Those who practice Munchausen by internet no longer need to go to the hospital for attention from medical professionals. Instead, they join multiple email groups and online health forums on medical information websites. “The patient” sometimes joins as multiple users, including their spouse, family, or anyone else who may come in handy to construct their story. Crisis upon crisis will ensue, even up to the death of the “patient.”
Recognizing Virtual Factitious Disorder
Those who feign illness on the internet can create a lot of controversy within a group, as tension builds between those on the side of the “patient” and those who wonder if they are being lied to. If the “patient” is using many additional identities online, it can make the situation even more confusing. Here are some signs that may point to a factitious illness online:
- The person’s posts duplicate material in textbooks or online medical information.
- The timing and duration of the person’s posts do not make sense in the context of the illness the person is describing.
- The symptoms and treatments described by the “patient” do not ring true.
- The “patient” describes many near-fatal illnesses, alternating with miraculous recoveries.
- If the person’s life seems to be full of constant dramatic events, particularly if the group’s attention has not been focused on them,
- The “patient” suggests that the group’s lack of adequate support may in some way be responsible for a decline in his/her health.
- The person avoids contact in “real life,” whether by telephone or in person, and may construct elaborate excuses as to why.
- For example, posting about a cardiac arrest or a cerebral hemorrhage may seem abnormally casual about a crisis, and the person may seem to enjoy the attention that it brings (for example, posting about a cardiac arrest or a cerebral hemorrhage).
- Others who are supposedly posting on behalf of the “patient” (caretakers, family members, spouse, etc.) have the same writing style, and the same spelling and syntax errors.
Those who have encountered virtual factitious disorders are familiar with the “patient’s” immense capacity for lying. From the Greek, “fantastic untruths,” the “patient” not only exaggerates his/her symptoms but will often tell elaborate lies about events in his/her life.
They often exaggerate their own importance to their online community, and may brag about heroic accomplishments, encounters with famous people, or surviving improbable traumatic events.
Lessons of Virtual Factitious Disorder
Those participating in online communities may want to reconsider sharing very personal or identifying information with the group. As well, they may want to avoid making health decisions based on online medical information, even in groups that are specialized to particular conditions.
If Munchausen by internet is suspected, it’s best if a small group of established members from the online community confronts the suspicious member. Although the “patient” may vehemently deny any deception, they usually leave the group once discovered. The established members should then work to help the group deal with their feelings and resolve any disputes that the “patient” may have caused.