Malingering and Munchausen’s

My name is Meg and I have a disability.

A simple statement, but how do I prove it? Well, I can point at the medical evidence, which clearly shows that there are physical problems with my body that can be seen and measured. So there’s obviously “something wrong with me”. But there’s no test that can measure the amount of pain, fatigue or difficulty caused by those flaws. You just have to take my word for it that I’m as disabled as I say I am.

I think most people realise I’m honest about my symptoms. If anything, I tend to keep them to myself rather than inflict them on everyone else. One friend commented recently that he doesn’t associate me with hospitals. I was touched.

But with the current changes in the benefits system here in the UK, there are many accusations that the disabled are “faking it”, exaggerating their symptoms and generally malingering. Whilst their opposition point to individuals with clear disabilities who’ve been assessed as making it up. Both sides cite anecdotal evidence to make their case. In my opinion, both are correct. There are plenty of people with chronic illnesses that don’t show.

And there are also those who claim there’s something wrong when there isn’t.
I know I’m walking a tightrope here and this isn’t meant as a political statement. I’m not coming down on either side of the benefits debate, just commenting on my own observations.

Firstly, there are people who claim illness they don’t have or exaggerate symptoms for a specific gain. This can be as simple as phoning work to say you’ve got flu to get an extra few days off. Or saying you’ve got a migraine when it’s really a hangover. That’s malingering and there is documented evidence it’s been going on for thousands of years. The Romans knew that people would fake illness to get out of work! Nothing new here.

But there are also people who fake or exaggerate their symptoms for less obvious gains. Presumably for sympathy or attention from others.

One man I knew was openly jealous of what he perceived as the special treatment I got for my disability. He was fond of making statements that began “It’s alright for you, Meg…” when he’d had to walk 20 yards from the car park and I’d been able to park close to the door so I didn’t have to push myself so far in my wheelchair. He clearly thought I was lucky to have a disability because my life was so much easier as a result.

Then there are those who elicit details about medical problems and later claim the same symptoms. A relative asked for details of how my fatigue affects me in a way that didn’t feel like sympathy. A few months later she told me about her own problems – using my exact words about fatigue and then embellishing the problem in ways that sounded unlikely. I can only assume she’d been telling so many people about ”her” problems that she’d forgotten when she got the information from in the first place.

There have been many such incidents over the years – and I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m pleased to see this recent report: here which recognises Munchausen’s by internet – people who fake illness online because it’s easy to get away with lying. The full report here is a dry read, but there’s a list of characteristic behaviours which can give the game away.

Malingering is obviously part of the human psyche, whether we approve or not. People have been faking it for centuries and will keep doing so. But current patterns of individuals feigning illness for less tangible benefits are more worrying. It’s no wonder people and societies are suffering compassion fatigue when there are so many claiming sympathy they may not deserve.

Leaving those with genuine problems to take the “blame”.


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