Munchausen? Or just a lot of bullshit?

So no doubt by now you’ve probably heard the whole Belle Gibson (founder of ‘The Whole Pantry’ app) saga. And if you haven’t- what rock have you been living under? Can I come join you please? Anyways, to get you up to speed- see here. I’ll wait for you.

Read it? Shaking your head in disbelief? Welcome back. Bit cray, isn’t it?

On the surface it seems so incredibly outside of the realms of possibility to actually be true. Could someone spearhead such a huge deception? How could she live with herself? Is she just a cruel, manipulative person who has taken many for a ride? While understandably a lot of people are confused, hurt, and very angry at her, another question has been posed. Could she have Munchhausen Syndrome?

Munchhausen Syndrome is a mental health issue, whereby a person feigns illness in order to seek attention and affection. Also known as Factitious Disorder, it’s not for any financial or medical gain, it’s more a complex issue fueled by irrational and clearly unhealthy desire to get the sympathies and focus of others. It’s not about some jerk egomaniac who wants to hog the spotlight, or some evil person who loves to manipulate others. They tend to believe their own lies, or the payoff for telling such lies simply fuels them to go further.  In a way, Munchhausen is a form of self-mutilation. Pulling oneself down, sometimes even hurting oneself, to make the appearance of being sick ‘realistic’.

Image: Source

How the hell do people believe their stories? I hear you ask. I know. Seems hard, right? But they’re convincing. So, so convincing. Often convincing themselves also. They can go to great lengths to ‘prove’ their story. It becomes their obsession.

What does it look like? Often it looks like a long history of medical issues, a range of symptoms that may not necessarily all fit together, the issues get bigger and bigger (as happened in Belle Gibson’s case). Although they play out a solid case, there’s never any conclusive evidence to back up their claims. They’ll normally have a history of ‘doctor shopping’. If a doctor gets too close to the truth, a Munchhausen person will jump ship and find someone new to try their stories on. Their knowledge of medical issues is both impressive and alarming all at the same time. And a big clue? Despite all the evidence based treatments thrown at them, they seem to never recover or improve from their illness.

Why does this happen? Well that’s a tricky one to answer. There can be a neglectful and/or traumatic background, the experience of a chronic illness when young or watching someone else go through a chronic illness, disruptions to development, major self-esteem issues, and other issues can combine to form Munchhausen. It’s tough. It’s even tougher to diagnose, because often the person moves doctors before conclusive evidence can be pulled together. Sometimes for a diagnosis to occur, there needs to be both a constellation of symptoms that ring alarm bells and also the views of those close to the person are needed to confirm that the story doesn’t add up.

An off-shoot of Munchhausen is Munchhausen by-proxy, whereby someone feigns illness in another person to serve their own needs and gain attention. Usually occurring between parents and children. Of course very sadly this has come to light recently, with blogger Lacey Spears sentenced to 20 years jail for killing her son by feeding him salt, while blogging about his illnesses. Did you hear about it? The story is here.  Her son’s health issues were a direct result of her actions.  She’d gained quite a following and garnered a lot of sympathy. Having a child who is seriously ill? Every Mother’s worst nightmare. People were drawn to such a sad story, and desperately wanted to show their care and support. As you do.  The resulting outcome is horrific. For everyone involved. A very sick Mum and a dead child. How do you grapple with that?

munchausen teddy
So freakin’ sad. Image: Source

The hard part of Munchhausen (and by proxy) is that we take it personally. We think the person has set out to dupe us and is laughing that evil cackle (think Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget) when they suck us in. But the reality is it’s not about us at all. In fact, they don’t even think about us. They’re thinking about them. And the rush they get from their ‘illnesses’. It’s a compulsion in a way. They get something out of it. Upsetting people isn’t on their agenda at all. But it’s a very real, and very sad by-product of their actions.

I need to be very clear that I’m not sticking up for Belle Gibson in any way, shape or form. And I’m not excusing the behaviour of her at all. To be honest, we have no clue what’s really gone down and why. We can only go on what’s been fed to us by the media. Could she have Munchhausen? Very possibly. But we don’t have all the facts to piece it together. But if she does, we need to be mindful that she is indeed not well. Perhaps not with cancer that she originally proposed, but she’s sick at the moment all the same.

For a bit more reading on Munchhausen go here. There’s a neat article on it here too. And Dr. Phil, being the total dude that he is, did a show on it a couple of years ago. If you’re after info on Munchausen by-proxy, there’s some info on this site. If you’re looking for an amazing book to read that details life as a child of a parent with Munchausen by-proxy, check out Sickened. It’s chilling.


What’s your take on the whole Belle Gibson story? Mental health issues at play? Or just plain nasty shit going down?




  • We had this very discussion at home last night. I think you’d have to be ill to willingly want to mislead so many people but I can’t help think that there’s some plain old nasty shit going down too. The very people she chose to mislead are the people who needed her help more than anyone, that is, the real cancer patients. The whole thing is just very sad.

    • It’s just awful to think of the poor people misled by her advice. But I wonder whether she willingly chose to mislead- or whether it was something that happened by chance due to whatever is going on in her mind. I’m not sure she set out to hurt people, but when things got too huge too quick, I’d say it was impossible to back out. Gosh, how to pick up the pieces for her son now though. :( x

  • It kind of reads as a Personality Disorder of some kind to me. The manipulation, narcissism, implausible back story, history of estranged relationships, lack of detail. What do you think? A very sad story on every front though. I find it very difficult to believe that she has willingly and knowingly manipulated people.

    • I think you could be onto something Ellen! It’s so hard to tease it all out, isn’t it? I read somewhere that someone with Munchausen’s denounced that Belle could have it, because she was profiteering. But I wonder whether that was a by-product of all the attention and support she was craving? I am very curious to know what’s happened in her childhood to lead to such estranged relationships. Very, very sad for everyone affected. x

    • I agree with you ladies. What a shock for people I can only imagine. (I bought her app by the way ) I find it so difficult to define precisely between manipulation, perversion, narcissic personality disorder… We need to find a word to explain just to reassure ourselves. Sometimes I just tell myself, wtf , don’t care about diagnose and focus on the consequences of behavior. Afterall, all our patients suffer and build some defense mecanisms.
      In that case, there is money involved so… more tricky I think!
      Again doc Sash a perfect post to make people aware of Munchausen syndrom. Thanks! I would like you to write in french so that I could send your post all over :)

  • I’m with you on the not wanting to stick up for her but that “poor” girl seems totally messed up. I feel for her husband or partner too, he must be left thinking WTF! Agree with Ellen about PD. Hopefully she will now get the help she needs.

    • Oh gosh her husband/partner must just be in such a spin over it all. Allegedly he’s supportive of her, but to be deceived in such a way? Yikes. Oh yes here’s hoping she gets some help, for her sake and the sake of her child. x

  • Marney

    The whole thing is wack!!! Did her hubby know the truth? Or did she fool him too? Very very sad. I feel sorry for her either way to be honest! What a sad existence. Great post Dr S!

    • It really is wack, isn’t it?? That’s such a good question- surely hubby would have to suspect something was amiss, right? Like how could you be so close to someone and not know that the cancer was never there? I wonder if she was making herself sick, or taking certain meds to make it more authentic around him? Thanks lovely, it’s been on my mind! x

  • The first time I heard of Belle was after shit started going down. I read a few things, seen a few things & I just couldn’t believe that somebody would be so vile, but then I thought when it comes to fame & money people will do ANYTHING! So I call nasty shit & I have no forgiveness for people who prey on others who are so vulnerable.

    • I think she saw herself as vulnerable, which is the sad and twisted part. Clearly she needs help of some sort. x

  • I always thought it was fabrication of symptoms, but could also include inducing illness within themselves. So they could lie about it, doctor tests etc but then also potentially make themselves ill too. She’s been to see doctors I thought? Who bloody knows really- so many holes in the story!! Ha ha it’s probably a combo of PD and Munchausen’s! It’s just all round sad either way, isn’t it? x

  • I don’t know what to think about it all. I’m guessing you’re probably right with this diagnosis but it’s still hard to feel sympathy towards Belle on this occasion. I knew someone who lived a web of lies (like nearly their entire life) and it was near impossible to untangle themselves without coming undone. They did eventually but it caused a lot of hurt and a took a lot of bravery and self incrimination on their behalf. Once you’re in deep it’s hard to get out. I imagine this is the scenario that Belle found herself in and when there was so much money involved, I see why she wasn’t inclined to back peddle. Nevertheless, it is a very sad story on all fronts.

  • Lisa Heidke

    Really sounds like she has a personality disorder…I can’t quite believe the people closest to her, like husband, other family and best friends would not have known. Surely, someone must have asked to accompany her to her specialist appointments, view the MRI’s etc.

  • I just cant fathom it. I am so scared of Doctors and illness for both my kids and myself that I just cant imagine living a life where I absorb myself in itself and possibly even manifest it, Gah. It is so sad, but sadder for the children who wear the parents illness in this area. I had no idea about that blogger Lacey – that is just so unfathomable xx

  • Thanks for this post. I’m not exactly sure what I think of Belle but I sway towards narcissistic con artist. It is her words after the unraveling that make me feel this way, the yeah i did it but get over it and don’t be mean to me attitude.Great post old wise one! x

  • I’ve followed Belle on and off on Instagram for years and I genuinely felt terrible for her before all of this came out! As shocked and disgusted as I am about the entire situation (including her publishers lacking in fact checking etc) I’m more shocked and curious to find out WHY it all happened. And how it happened! Belle clearly needs help, and I hope she gets it, especially for her son.

  • I’ve always been fascinated by Munchausen’s and the by-proxy spin off. It’s a strange and very very sad illness. I especially ache for the kids who are poisoned and injured by their own parents just for the attention and notoriety. It’s just awful. I think I’d like to read Sickened. But would it be too hard to read as a mum? I’m not even sure I can click on that link to the blogger who killed her son (I didn’t know about that. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, that poor baby)
    As for Belle, I honestly can’t believe that any person would do all of that without having some serious mental health issues. It’s all just too bizarre and convoluted. A normal person couldn’t keep up the act that long….

  • Jo

    I’ll never understand it. Is it really a personality disorder or are they just plain criminals? I read about that poor 5 year old previously and it breaks my heart. If your Mum isn’t fighting for your health, your world is a very dark one indeed. :( I hope the Belle Gibson case is dealt with asap, to work out EXACTLY what went on there. Great post doc xx

    • I think she has to have some mental health issues at hand to do what she did. I think she’s had a pattern of issues sadly over the years. Either way it’s just plain sad to see it all pan out. x

  • Hugzilla

    Can’t believe I missed this one. The whole thing is simultaneously fascinating and repulsive to me. I find it unforgivable, because she clearly had the capacity to make conscious and intelligent choices – ones that enabled her to profit from her condition. She was able to run a successful business for years, so she was clearly functional in many ways we consider typical. The deceit and lies show she was aware that what she was doing was wrong, and yet she did it anyway. That’s not a popular view I know…