Mental illness describes abnormal cognitive or emotional patterns related to how a person thinks, feels, acts, and/or relates to others and his or her surroundings.
Factitious Disorder is a mental disorder in which a person acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when, in fact, he or she has consciously created their symptoms. The name factitious comes from the Latin word for “artificial.”
People with Factitious Disorder deliberately create or exaggerate symptoms of an illness in several ways. They may lie about or mimic symptoms, hurt themselves to bring on symptoms, or alter diagnostic tests (such as contaminating a urine sample).
Those with Factitious Disorders have an inner need to be seen as ill or injured, but not to achieve a concrete benefit, such as a financial gain. Individuals with Factitious Disorder are even willing to undergo painful or risky tests and operations in order to obtain the sympathy and special attention given to people who are truly ill.
Factitious Disorder is considered a mental illness because it is associated with severe emotional difficulties.
Many people with Factitious Disorder may also suffer from other mental disorders, particularly personality disorders.
People with personality disorders have long-standing patterns of thinking and acting that differ from what society considers usual or normal. People with personality disorders generally also have poor coping skills and problems forming healthy relationships.
Factitious Disorder is similar to Somatic Symptom Disorder, another mental disorder that involves the presence of symptoms that are not due to actual physical illnesses.
The main difference between the two groups of disorders is that people with Somatic Symptom Disorder do not intentionally fake symptoms or mislead others about their symptoms.
Similarly, the behavior of people with Factitious Disorder is not malingering, a term that refers to faking illness for financial gain (such as to collect insurance money), food or shelter, or to avoid criminal prosecution or other responsibilities. Malingering is potentially criminal behavior and not a mental illness.
Types of Factitious Disorder
In The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is the standard reference book for recognized mental illnesses in the United States, Factitious Disorder falls under the section of Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders.
The DSM- 5 categorizes Factitious Disorder into two types: Factitious Disorder Imposed on Self and Factious Disorder Imposed on Another.
“Falsification of physical or psychological signs or symptoms” or a combination of those occurs in Factitious Disorder, but it may also include inducing an injury such as making a skin cut to produce blood to mix with urine.
There are no obvious rewards like money or time off of work to explain why the individual is deceiving others. To make the diagnosis it is necessary to rule out delusions or other evidence of psychosis.
Factitious Disorder can occur as a single episode or be a recurrent pattern.
One example of Factitious Disorder is to mimic behavior that is typical of a mental illness, such as schizophrenia.
The person may appear confused, make absurd statements, and report hallucinations (the experience of sensing things that are not there; for example, hearing voices).
Another example is deceptively laying claim to having symptoms related to a physical illness, such as chest pain, stomach problems, or fever.
In the past this was 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 Imposed on Another was formerly called Factitious Disorder by Proxy or Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
Individuals with this disorder produce or fabricate symptoms of illness in another under their care: children, elderly adults, disabled persons, or pets. It most often occurs in mothers, although it can occur in fathers, who intentionally harm their children in order to receive attention.
The diagnosis is not given to the victim, but rather to the perpetrator.
What are the symptoms of Factitious Disorder?
Possible warning signs of Factitious Disorder include the following:
- Dramatic but inconsistent medical history
- Unclear symptoms that are not controllable, become more severe, or change once treatment has begun
- Predictable relapses following improvement in the condition
- Extensive knowledge of hospitals and/or medical terminology, as well as the textbook descriptions of illness
- Presence of many surgical scars
- Appearance of new or additional symptoms following negative test results
- Presence of symptoms only when the patient is alone or not being observed
- Willingness or eagerness to have medical tests, operations, or other procedures
- History of seeking treatment at many hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices, possibly even in different cities
- Reluctance by the patient to allow health care professionals to meet with or talk to family members, friends, and prior health care providers
What causes Factitious Disorder?
The exact cause of Factitious Disorder is not known, but researchers believe both biological and psychological factors play a role in the development of this disorder.
Some theories suggest that a history of abuse or neglect as a child, or a history of frequent illnesses in themselves or family that required hospitalization, may be factors in the development of the disorder.
- Factitious disorder is more common in people who are young or middle-aged.
- Factors that may increase your risk of factitious disorder include:
- Having a personality disorder such as sociopathy or borderline personality disorder
- Having severe problems during childhood such as psychiatric problems
- Being hospitalized or institutionalized
- Having a poor sense of identity
- Having poor coping skills
- Working in the healthcare field
How common is Factitious Disorder?
There are no reliable statistics regarding the number of people in the United States who suffer from Factitious Disorder. Obtaining accurate statistics is difficult because dishonesty is common with this disorder.
In addition, people with Factitious Disorders tend to seek treatment at many different health care facilities, resulting in statistics that are misleading.
It is estimated that about 1% of those admitted to hospitals are believed to have Factitious Disorder.
How is Factitious Disorder diagnosed?
Due to the dishonesty involved, diagnosing Factitious Disorder is very difficult. In addition, doctors must rule out any possible physical and mental illnesses, and often use a variety of diagnostic tests and procedures before considering a diagnosis of Factitious Disorder.
If the health care provider finds no physical reason for the symptoms, he or she may refer the person to a psychiatrist or psychologist (mental health professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses).
Psychiatrists and psychologists use thorough history, physical, laboratory tests, imagery, and psychological testing to evaluate a person for physical and mental conditions.
The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on the exclusion of actual physical or mental illness, and his or her observation of the patient’s attitude and behavior.
For example, Delusional Disorder and various forms of psychosis are not examples of Factitious Disorder.
Questions to be answered include:
- Do the patient’s reported symptoms make sense in the context of all test results and assessments?
- Do we have collateral information from other sources that confirm the patient’s information? (If the patient does not allow this, this is a helpful clue.)
- Is the patient more willing to take the risk for more procedures and tests than you would expect?
- Are treatments working in a predictable way?
The doctor then determines if the patient’s symptoms point to Factitious Disorder as outlined in DSM-5.
How is Factitious Disorder treated?
Factitious disorder is difficult to treat. The person may resist getting help. In some cases, though, the person may agree to work with a mental health expert.
Psychotherapy or behavior therapy may be helpful. If the person has any other conditions, like depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems, these can be treated as well.
The first goal of treatment is to modify the person’s behavior and reduce his or her misuse or overuse of medical resources.
In the case of Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another, the main goal is to ensure the safety and protection of any real or potential victims.
Once the initial goal is met, treatment aims to resolve any underlying psychological issues that may be causing the person’s behavior or help them find solutions to housing or other social needs.
The primary treatment for Factitious Disorder is psychotherapy (a type of counseling). Treatment likely will focus on changing the thinking and behavior of the individual with the disorder (cognitive-behavioral therapy).
Family therapy also may be helpful in teaching family members not to reward or reinforce the behavior of the person with the disorder.
There are no medications to actually treat Factitious Disorder. Medication may be used, however, to treat any related disorder, such as depression or anxiety.
The use of medications must be carefully monitored in people with Factitious Disorder due to the risk that the drugs may never be picked up from the pharmacy or may be used in a harmful way.
What are the complications of Factitious Disorder?
People with Factitious Disorder are at risk for health problems associated with hurting themselves by causing symptoms.
In addition, they may suffer health problems related to multiple tests, procedures, and treatments, and are at high risk for substance abuse and suicide attempts.
A complication of Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another is the abuse and potential death of the victims.
What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with Factitious Disorder?
Some people with Factitious Disorder suffer one or two brief episodes of symptoms. In most cases, however, Factitious Disorder is a chronic, or long-term, condition that can be very difficult to treat.
Additionally, many people with Factitious Disorder deny they are faking symptoms and will not seek or follow treatment.
Can Factitious Disorder be prevented?
There is no known way to prevent Factitious Disorder. However, it may be helpful to start treatment in people as soon as they begin to have symptoms.