Factitious disorder explained
The popular Hulu show The Act is inspired by the true story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, whose mother convinced people that her daughter had an illness she didn’t have.
Her mother had a disorder known as factitious disorder imposed on another.
Factitious disorder, formerly known as Munchausen Syndrome, is a rare mental disorder in which a person either fakes illness or suggests illness in someone else to garner attention, leniency, perks or sympathy, all to satisfy an emotional void or gratify themselves.
Factitious disorder imposed on another is similar, except a caregiver forces, encourages or influences a person under their care to go along with acting sick or convinces the victim that he or she actually is sick. In this case, the caregiver often induces illness-like symptoms in the victim through physical, mental or emotional abuse.
“These conditions are difficult to diagnose because of the dishonesty involved,” says Dr. Luke Warpinski, a family medicine physician at Aurora BayCare Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Center in Green Bay, Wis. “And often, these patients jump from doctor to doctor, so it’s difficult to get a full picture of what may truly be going on.”
However, Dr. Warpinski explains that current-day software allows providers to research outside records for any information available on patients, making it easier to recognize factitious disorder patterns.
While the situation depicted on The Act is an extremely severe case, there are warning signs to look for.
Here’s what The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, as well as Dr. Warpinski, say are common traits:
- Diagnoses that are rare and dramatic
- Utilization of many different physicians and hospitals
- Traveling from city to city, or even state to state, for treatment
- Engaging in often risky or experimental procedures
- Experience in health care field and familiarity with medical terminology
- Symptoms become more severe after negative test results
- Symptoms flare up after the condition seems to have subsided
Unfortunately, the causes of this disorder are unknown.
“Many believe factitious disorder is brought on as a result of neglect or trauma as a child,” Dr. Warpinski says. “But others believe it may be simply in the nature of a person. There is no way to know at this time.”
Through ongoing therapy, individuals with either form of factitious disorder can change their behavior. However, convincing somebody with the syndrome to seek help can be difficult.
“Unless the individual is ready to admit the truth,” says Dr. Warpinski, “there is not much we can do. However, if this individual is harming another person, it’s essential to alert authorities as soon as possible.”
About the Author
Brianna Wunsch, health enews contributor, is a public affairs specialist for Advocate Aurora Health with a BA in public affairs from University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. In her free time, Brianna enjoys living an active lifestyle through biking, hiking and working out at the gym, but even more than that, she especially loves spending quality time with her two cats (Arthur and Loki), son and husband.