Munchausen by Internet is a modern mental illness, a factitious disorder that is manifested by a person who gets immediate gratification from fabricated stories posted on the web.
The pathological faking of illness is not necessarily just a disorder of the real world. As we will find out, there is another class of factitious disorders that could manifest even in front of a computer.
By definition, factitious disorder or Munchausen syndrome, is a mental disorder that is characterized by faking illness just to get some kind of medical and emotional attention. Related to psychosomatic and somatoform disorders, Muchausen syndrome is generally differentiated from these mental illnesses by a preponderance for attention-seeking behavior, regardless of whether there is really a medical problem or not. Simply said, in Munchausen syndrome, illness is an excuse to gain attention from people.
Munchausen by Proxy
Surprisingly, it does not even require that the person fake his or her own illness. There are some cases by which illness is conferred to a surrogate, either to a child or a close relative, which in this case creates an outpouring of support to the “distraught” parent. This is called Munchausen by proxy, or a situation by which a person gets attention by making sure that a child is sick.
The case of Jenny Bush is such an example. A child who has been chronically-ill since birth, Jenny has suffered around 200 hospitalizations and 40 operations before it was found out that Kathleen, her mother, was causing her daughter’s medical problems. Charges against Kathleen included specifics as giving unprescribed medication Jenny and even instances where she introduced fecal material to her daughter’s feeding tube. The motivation for this horrifying behavior? Media attention, the drug of choice, so to speak, for Kathleen
Virtual Factitious Disorder
It doesn’t stop here, however. Actually, there is another class of factitious disorders that seem to be in tune with today’s information technology-centric world. Since attention is the prime reason for faking illness then it is conceivable that there are other avenues by which attention could be obtained. And there are other avenues, this time through the Internet.
First described by Dr. Marc Feldman in a 2000 journal article, virtual factitious disorder constitutes the misuse of Internet-oriented communication to gain attention and emotional support from people. The disorder is exemplified by people who fabricate heart-wrenching and compelling stories to get immediate gratification from an Internet audience’s emotional outpouring. The sick role, in this case, is capitalized over the Internet to make sure that there is always someone to give some kind of support to the person with the disorder. He eventually renamed the condition Munchausen by Internet.
Munchausen by Internet: Case Studies
Feldman (2000) shares a case study involving a person who describes himself on a Usenet group (a kind of Internet forum) as a 15-year old boy who first suffered from a bout migraines but moved on to more fantastic embellishments of his life: a brother who died from AIDS, a mother who was deaf, a father who is an alcoholic, him a medical student who skateboards to school everyday and performs with a band during evenings to pay for his school and for his medication. This is certainly a detailed and compelling story, but one in which inconsistencies (who drums with a migraine?) had ultimately shed truth on the matter.
Another case involved a ‘Barbara’ who posted on a cystic fibrosis (CF) support group that she was just person “in the final stages of CF, was at home waiting to die, but with a dream of dying on the beach” (Feldman, 2000). Of course, such a story had gained the attention of the members and an outpouring of support was given. A few days later, ‘Amy’, a supposed friend, posted that Barbara has died but not without finally getting her final wish. The support group members were distraught, but some had ultimately questioned how Barbara had gotten her final wish (she’s supposed to immobile and can’t be transported without oxygen). A few days later, someone admitted that she made the whole story up.
The emergence of new Internet technologies now means that we have to contend not just with two types of factitious disorders (Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen by proxy) but with a third that had surprisingly adapted to our Internet-dependent world, Munchausen by Internet. But, regardless of the category, we have to remember that all factitious disorders have one thing in common: the hunger for attention.
Feldman, M. (2000). Munchausen by Internet. Detecting Factitious Illness and Crisis on the Internet. Southern Medical Journal, 93(7), 669-672.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2008). Abnormal Psychology 4th Edition. Philippines: McGraw-Hill International