Munchausen syndrome: Why bloggers like cancer fraud Belle Gibson fake sickness online

Australian 'wellness' blogger Gibson was exposed as a fraud, but she's not alone as this worrying trend continues to grow

Helen Nianias
Thursday 30 April 2015 16:39 BST
Belle Gibson claimed to have embarked on ‘a quest to heal herself naturally’
Belle Gibson claimed to have embarked on ‘a quest to heal herself naturally’

Sitting in front of a computer screen, you can be anybody, with any tragic life story, and suddenly win thousands of new friends and allies.

And this is why experts think that since the advent of the internet, incidents of fake illnesses and tragedies have risen sharply.

The most recent high-profile case was of Australian "wellness and lifestyle" blogger Belle Gibson. A single mother diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of 20, Gibson wrote of how she stopped chemotherapy after eight weeks and embarked on a vegetable-rich diet free from gluten, dairy and coffee. This, she said, shrank the tumour, along with treatments such as colonic irrigation, oxygen therapy and Ayurvedic medicine.

Gibson quickly gained a strong online following, a book deal and iWatch app confirmed for her cookery and health guide The Whole Pantry. But concerns were raised after money Gibson claimed to have donated to charities never arrived in their bank accounts.

She later admitted that the entire story was made up. In an interview Gibson explained that she wasn't quite sure what was happening. "I think my life has just got so many complexities around it and within it, that it’s just easier to assume [I’m lying]," she said.

But Gibson's is not an isolated case. In March, Ohio gay rights activist Adam Hoover was charged with faking his own kidnapping after posting updates of his "abduction" on social media.

The same month, blogger Lacey Spears was jailed for 20 years after poisoning her five-year-old son to death with salt to gain sympathy from her readers.

This is by no mean a completely new phenomenon. Munchausen syndrome - wherby the sufferer feigns illness or trauma to gain sympathy or attention - dates back to the 1950s in the UK, but why does it seem to be taking off now?

"In a world of global sympathy where you can suddenly have 20 million hits of youtube, it’s your one chance to be a celebrity – far beyond what you’d ever expected, explains Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Chair of Psychological Medicine, King’s College London.

Lacey Spears killed her son by feeding him salt

We asked Sir Wessely about exactly what Münchausen syndrome is, and whether just anybody could develop it.

The Independent: Hi, Simon. Does Belle Gibson's case sound like Münchausen syndrome to you?

Professor Sir Simon Wessely: "Basically yes – it’s a 'factitious' disorder that you know you don’t have."

What causes people to develop the syndrome?

SW: "It’s not clear why they do it, but it's always to get attention. They do it to get the benefits of the 'sick role' – financial benefits, compassion, to be excused from responsibilities.

"It's also sometimes called 'doctor syndrome'. The difference [between the 1950s when it was discovered] and now that you didn’t get much from it – now there are cases of people who've have a disease and get money and attention. It's more widespread than we think. At the Paralympics in 2000, only two members of the Spanish basketball team were actually disabled, for instance."

So publicity encourages this kind of behaviour?

SW: "Now in the modern era as the victim status gets bigger and bigger. One very famous case was of Edward Daily, a US soldier who was a Korean war veteran. He went to the village that was the site of a massacre he said he participated in, and it was the usual theatre of contemporary repentance and he begged for forgiveness, and there was a religious ceremony and he was forgiven. But he’d never served in Korea. This was in 2000 - it’s part of a more modern phenomena.

"We live in an opera culture – we like people who've done bad things and seek repentance. Theres a social role for these people and 15 minutes of fame. Then we the audience feel good for contributing to a good cause [and encourage it]."

But why would you lie about something like killing a person or having cancer?

SW: "You can begin by exaggerating a bit and then it gets out of control. They didn’t set out that morning to lie about having cancer – it builds up. They might say: 'I’m ill, it might be cancer', then say 'I'm going for tests', then say: 'I have cancer', and it escalates from there."

It sounds like something George Costanza would do in Seinfeld...

SW: "[Laughs] It's more than that. It’s part of getting solicitous reactions from people who previously weren’t nice to them. The people I saw clinically, it just span out of control. It nearly always comes to light with really terrible conclusions.

"With the internet, our outrage is amplified, as is the ability to do it. The most lovely to most evil person in the world - hence us doing this interview. The ability to be seen as the victim becomes amplified."

I just don't understand it...

SW: "In the cases I've seen, it's always been difficult to understand – I never fully understood, and nor did they. Sometimes it's not obvious why it happens – more like a series of things that get out of control. It's not like planning the Hatton Garden robbery. You can’t lose face or back down, and before you know it, it gets worse and worse. The people I worked with said it was instinctive."

Could anybody develop the syndrome?

SW: "You couldn’t screen for it. Usually you find things like poor relationships, that they didn’t have a stable home life - but that’s not the cause because the world is full of unhappy people who don’t do that."

So is it kind of linked to a social awkwardness?

SW: "Not really. Often the people I've worked with are quite charismatic – quite savvy and rarely socially awkward. People have to like them and pity them and feel sorry for them."

What should people do if they're concerned they're developing the syndrome?

SW: "Consult a medical practitioner. And remember that fame comes with its disadvantages. It’s increasingly difficult to be 'ordinary' these days, but there are plenty of benefits."

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