Mental Health: Factitious Disorders

Factitious disorders are conditions in which a person acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. Factitious disorder by proxy is when a person acts as if a person in their care has an illness when they do not.

People with factitious disorders deliberately create or exaggerate symptoms of an illness in several ways. They may lie about or fake symptoms, hurt themselves to bring on symptoms, or alter tests (such as contaminating a urine sample) to make it look like they or the person in their care are sick.

People with factitious disorders behave this way because of an inner need to be seen as ill or injured, not to achieve a clear benefit, such as financial gain. People with factitious disorders are even willing and sometimes eager to undergo painful or risky tests and operations in order to obtain the sympathy and special attention given to people who are truly ill or have a loved one who is ill. Factitious disorders are considered mental illnesses because they are associated with severe emotional difficulties.

Many people with factitious disorders also suffer from other mental conditions, particularly personality disorders. People with personality disorders have long-standing patterns of thinking and acting that differ from what society considers usual or normal. These people generally also have poor coping skills and problems forming healthy relationships.

Factitious disorders are similar to another group of mental disorders called somatoform disorders, which also involve the presence of symptoms that are not due to actual physical or mental illnesses. The main difference between the two groups of disorders is that people with somatoform disorders do not fake symptoms or mislead others about their symptoms on purpose.

Types of Factitious Disorders

There are four main types of factitious disorders, including:

  • Factitious disorder with mostly psychological symptoms: As the description implies, people with this disorder mimic behavior that is typical of a mental illness, such as schizophrenia. They may appear confused, make absurd statements and report hallucinations, the experience of sensing things that are not there; for example, hearing voices. Ganser syndrome, sometimes called prison psychosis, is a factitious disorder that was first observed in prisoners. People with Ganser syndrome have short-term episodes of bizarre behavior similar to that shown by people with serious mental illnesses.
  • Factitious disorder with mostly physical symptoms: People with this disorder claim to have symptoms related to a physical illness, such as symptoms of chest pain, stomach problems, or fever. This disorder is sometimes referred to as Munchausen syndrome, named for Baron von Munchausen, an 18th century German officer who was known for embellishing the stories of his life and experiences.
  • Factitious disorder with both psychological and physical symptoms: People with this disorder produce symptoms of both physical and mental illness.
  • Factitious disorder not otherwise specified: This type includes a disorder called factitious disorder by proxy (also called Munchausen syndrome by proxy). People with this disorder produce or fabricate symptoms of illness in another person under their care. It most often occurs in mothers (although it can occur in fathers) who intentionally harm their children in order to receive attention.

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