Munchausen syndrome is an artificially created mental disorder characterized by acting as if he or she is physically or mentally ill, when there is really nothing wrong with them at all. The name “Munchausen Syndrome” comes from the fictional German nobleman Baron Munchausen, created by Rudolf Erich Raspe in approximately 1785. Munchausen syndrome should not get confused with the term “Hypochondriac”, which is a word used to describe someone who is overly anxious about their health.
Someone with this syndrome is not going to be overly anxious about their health because they are well aware that they are not sick. Their goal is oftentimes trying to convince others that they are physically or mentally ill to receive sympathy or aid of some sort. People with this syndrome may try to take advantage of other people or organizations, such as by receiving money via government assistance.
People with Munchausen syndrome typically pretend that they have mental illness as opposed to a physical ailment due to the mere fact that physical tests can be done to prove or disprove a physical disease/disorder. Mental illness can be very difficult to diagnose and is oftentimes misdiagnosed due to ignorance of the facts.
Excluding disorders like borderline personality disorder, bipolar, and psychotic disorders, it is not very difficult to get diagnosed with a mental illness. This is because there are not many tests that can be done to prove someone has a mental illness or not. Typically, a patient tells their doctor their symptoms and they get treated. A “good actor” can get diagnosed with virtually any mental disorder he or she likes.
People with this syndrome may go to painstaking efforts to try and convince a family member or a doctor that they are indeed ill. They may fake an injury by limping on one of their legs, when there is nothing wrong with their leg at all. They may pretend to have a full-blown panic attack so that they can escape an uncomfortable or boring situation that they’d rather not be present for. They may pretend to have a heart attack by agonizingly clutching their chest or pretending to faint.
In instances such as these it is virtually guaranteed that they will get immediate care from others and will not be questioned or doubted of their ailment, especially if their acting is convincing. The person with Munchausen syndrome is well aware of this and they use it to their advantage. They are usually master manipulators by capitalizing on most people’s ability to empathize.
“Empathy” is the manipulation tool of choice used by someone faking an illness as they know that in almost every instance, other people will empathize with them. Empathy is an innate human emotion that most, if not all of us feel immediately when seeing another human suffer. Our empathetic reactions often occur subconsciously without choice.
Below, you will see some of the more common symptoms of Munchausen syndrome:
Desperately craves attention
Vague symptoms that can’t be tested
Symptoms occur only when around others
Very willing to have tests or surgeries done
Claiming symptoms after negative test results
Frequently relapsing after treatment
History of seeing numerous doctors
Extensive knowledge of certain diseases
Arguing with doctors and medical staff
There is no known cause of Munchausen syndrome. However, genetics and one’s environment may play significant roles. People with Munchausen syndrome typically suffer from low self-esteem and are more insecure than most, so these may be causal factors. It is also not uncommon for people with this syndrome to also have other mental illnesses such as personality disorders.
The development of Munchausen syndrome may occur in early childhood. Young children with reactive attachment disorder, or who have experienced some sort of abandonment or abuse may have an increased chance of developing Munchausen syndrome. It is very difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of Munchausen syndrome due to the dishonest nature of the illness. Thus, much of the potential causes of this condition are not entirely understood.
It is very difficult, if not impossible to treat this syndrome. This is mainly due to the fact that most people who have this illness are not willing to admit that they have it in the first place. They may be honest with themselves about their motives, but they will often go to painstaking efforts to hide their true intentions with others. People with this syndrome will frequently seek out treatment for their fictional symptoms, but they will almost never seek out treatment for their Munchausen syndrome due to a conflict with the ego and short-term self-interest.
Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy
The term “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” is used to describe when a caregiver (e.g. parent) acts as if the one being cared for (e.g. child) has a physical or mental illness when they really don’t. For example, a mother suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy may try to convince her child as well as doctors that her child is too anxious and is emotionally unstable, when in reality the mother’s true motive is to put their child on some sort of benzodiazepine (e.g. Xanax, Valium, etc.) so they won’t have to bother tending to the child’s needs as they will be “zoned out” on drugs.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy may also occur because it is a way that the caregiver can “legally” take prescription drugs. Using the foregoing example, the mother can simply take it upon herself to take the real drugs and give her child vitamins or some other pills.
Not having to raise their children and/or easily acquiring drugs is not the only reason as to why some caregivers resort to Munchausen syndrome by proxy. In fact, many do so simply to get attention and sympathy. They may try to paint the image that they themselves are going through hardships treating their “sickly” child and that they are the child’s “knight in shining armor” as the caregiver is willing to stop at nothing to get their child “healthy” again. They may be willing to pay for any test or have their child undergo unnecessary treatments/surgeries.
Here at Psych Times, you’ll find a plethora of articles related to psychology, mental health, and overall well-being. Our goals are plentiful and include increasing the awareness of mental health, educating the public about why people think and behave the way they do, as well as helping to counteract the unfortunate stigma associated with mental illness.