Munchausen Syndrome: The Deadly Mental Illness that Accounts for 360,000 Annual Hospitalizations
People who silently suffer with Munchausen Syndrome have been known to cause physical disease by injecting harmful bacteria directly into their veins so that they must go to the hospital, for example.
Munchausen Syndrome is the most severe and chronic form of Factitious Disorder, a type of self-harm in which people secretly make themselves sick or injured to gain sympathy and medical attention. Most of these patients receive extensive lab tests and in many cases unnecessary surgery.
Unfortunately, Munchausen Syndrome is extremely hard to recognize, and just as hard to treat. Medical literature on Munchausen Syndrome is sparse.
Worse, even less is known about effective treatment of Munchausen patients. A new inspirational book, Secrets Unraveled: Overcoming Munchausen Syndrome, co-authored by Dr. Thomas Hall and his former patient Andrea Avigal, chronicles Andrea’s journey from horrific childhood abuse and neglect to the development of the syndrome, and details the six-year therapy that cured her.
The book is written in alternating sections including original emails offering readers the opportunity to hear both voices. It is a window into a Munchausen patient’s life and an unconventional psychotherapy relationship.
I interviewed both Dr. Hall and Andrea. See the October 16, 2012 episode of Mental Health Exposed.
Andrea’s incredible recovery
Over most of her adult life, Andrea had created her own serious and life threatening illnesses, bouncing from hospital to hospital while her doctors, family and friends were unaware of the origin of all of her medical problems. She harmed herself in every way imaginable, experimenting constantly with medications to become sick, restricting all of her fluid intake and taking massive doses of laxatives over years causing arrhythmias and kidney problems. Andrea also injected bacteria into parts of her body and into her veins creating horrific infections (requiring long hospitalizations).
Dr. Hall realized early on in her treatment that his typical approach of talking with patients once a week, with no other contact in between sessions, wasn’t enough to help her. He made conscious decisions to expand his availability to her, increasing her therapy to twice a week meetings, speaking frequently on the phone in between sessions and eventually emailing with her.
The increased contact helped Andrea gain the trust necessary to delve into her dark, abusive childhood and gradually work through her traumatic memories. After two years of treatment she finally revealed her Munchausen behavior to him. Andrea finally confided in Tm after she landed herself in ICU, which compelled her to reveal her secretive life to everyone else and eventually stop hurting herself.
Some experts in the field define recovery from this disorder as decreasing emergency room visits and hospitalizations. In Andrea’s case, she decided she needed to end all Munchausen behavior. Limiting her self-harm was not enough because she knew she would eventually die. With the right therapeutic connection, time and determination, she achieved full recovery and is now leading a healthy and productive life.
In Secrets Unraveled: Overcoming Munchausen Syndrome, read how Dr. Hall never gave up on Andrea and how together they fought to save her life. By co-authoring their story, Andrea and Dr. Hall hope that her dramatic recovery will inspire other therapists to consider alternative approaches to working with trauma survivors, particularly those with severe mental illnesses such as Munchausen Syndrome.
If you suspect that you or anyone you know suffers with Munchausen Syndrome, you must educate yourself about this life threatening condition.
Listen to the interview on the October 16, 2012 episode of Mental Health Exposed.
Bundrant, M. (2013). Munchausen Syndrome: The Deadly Mental Illness that Accounts for 360,000 Annual Hospitalizations. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 26, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/nlp/2013/10/munchausen-syndrome-the-deadly-mental-illness-that-accounts-for-360000-annual-hospitalizations/