Munchausen Syndrome and Munchausen by Proxy: Fascinating, Perplexing, Disturbing

Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen by proxy are two of the most fascinating problems in mental health, in large part because both involve willful medical and/or emotional deception. They involve people doing horrific things to themselves or others in order to gain attention from doctors, hospitals, friends, and relatives. They fall under the general category of factitious illness, which also includes hypochondria.

While most people want to be in good health and avoid doctors, tests, and the like, sufferers from these maladies invent illnesses to keep themselves (or others) in the health care system, undergoing test after needless test, and worse—including undergoing surgery.

In Munchausen syndrome, a person pretends to be sick and goes from doctor to doctor, having test after test, often intentionally injuring themselves to get treatment. In some cases people will stab or shoot themselves or ingest poison to get treatment.

As bizarre as that is, Munchausen by proxy is even more disturbing. In Munchausen by proxy a caretaker (usually a parent) deliberately and repeatedly exaggerates, fabricates, or induces a problem in a child or other loved one. The child may be forced to fake illness, or to eat things that will make him sick, or—worst of all—the parent may poison the child without his knowledge in order to gain access to medical treatment.

Sufferers and their loved ones can find information and support at Web sites like those of the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, and the women’s site iVillage.

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