A person in a tan shirt sits in a doctor's office explaining his mental health symptoms as the doctor tries to determine if he is dealing with factitious disorder or malingering.

Factitious Disorder vs. Malingering: A Comprehensive Exploration

June 3, 2023

6 min.

Both factitious disorder and malingering involve faking or exaggerating medical or mental health symptoms, but their goals and consequences vary significantly. Learn more here.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Learn more about our Clinical Review Process


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Table of Contents

Factitious disorder and malingering, while related in some ways, are two distinct conditions involving deception. Both conditions involve the fabrication or exaggeration of symptoms, but their motivations and consequences vary significantly. This blog aims to illuminate these two conditions, delving into their differences, diagnoses, prevalence, and treatment options.

What is factitious disorder?

Factitious disorder, also known as Munchausen syndrome, is a mental health disorder where people make up or exaggerate physical or psychological symptoms without any clear reason or benefit, according to the DSM-5. In simpler terms, factitious disorder means that people pretend to be sick or injured even when there’s no obvious motivation or reward for their actions. Factitious disorders are complex and challenging to treat. 

Treatment typically involves psychotherapy, specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps patients recognize and change thought patterns leading to their harmful behaviors. Sometimes, medical or psychiatric hospitalization may be necessary to manage severe cases or deal with any physical harm resulting from fabricated symptoms.

People with factitious disorder can go to great lengths to appear ill. Some may lie about their medical history, fake test results, or even harm themselves to produce symptoms. They may ingest harmful substances, inject themselves with bacteria to induce infection or tamper with medical devices to alter test results.

Factitious disorder by proxy

Factitious disorder imposed on another by proxy (FDbP), is a mental disorder where a caregiver purposely causes or makes up physical symptoms in someone under their care, often a child, to gain attention or sympathy. This disorder is also referred to as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. While the exact cause of FDbP is unknown, it’s believed that underlying psychological issues, history of abuse, or neglect may play a role.

What is malingering?

Unlike factitious disorder, malingering is not categorized as a mental health condition but rather a behavioral issue. Malingerers fake or exaggerate medical or psychological symptoms. However, unlike factitious disorder, the primary motivation behind malingering is typically personal gain. 

What are the different types of malingering?

Malingering can present in several ways depending on the individual’s specific motives and goals. Here are some of the different types:

  • Pure malingering
    This is when a person completely fabricates an illness or disability that does not exist.
  • Partial lingering
    In this case, a person has a genuine illness or disability but exaggerates the severity or impact of the symptoms for personal gain.
  • False imputation
    This type of malingering involves attributing real symptoms to an unrelated cause. For instance, someone might falsely claim their back pain is due to a work-related incident to receive worker’s compensation.
  • Simulation
    Here, the malingerer mimics symptoms of a specific condition they do not have. They might research the illness thoroughly to make their deception more believable.

Is malingering associated with any mental health disorders?

While malingering is not a mental health condition, it can be associated with certain psychiatric disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorders, and substance use disorders. However, malingering is a complex behavior that requires careful assessment by mental health professionals to differentiate between genuine symptoms and intentional deceit.

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Factitious disorder vs. malingering

While similar on the surface, factitious disorder and malingering have different motivations and behaviors.

People with factitious disorders intentionally produce or exaggerate symptoms but can’t control their behavior. The primary motive is to assume the sick role, not for personal gain but due to a psychological need to be perceived as ill or injured.

On the other hand, malingering is characterized by the intentional falsification of symptoms with a clear objective in mind, like personal or financial gain. Unlike factitious disorder, malingering isn’t considered a mental health condition because the malingerer has control over their actions and is driven by external incentives.

In short, while both involve the fabrication of symptoms, the key difference between factitious disorder and malingering lies in the motivation behind these actions. Factitious disorder is driven by a psychological need to be seen as sick, whereas malingering is motivated by external benefits.

A daughter lies on a couch in her mother's lap. The daughter has been having health anxiety but the mother doesn't know if it is factitious disorder or malingering.

Treatment options for factitious disorder and malingering

Factitious disorder is a complex mental health condition, and its treatment can be quite challenging. The primary treatment for factitious disorder is psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or counseling. This treatment focuses on changing the thinking and behavior of the patient.

Psychotherapy helps people control stress, develop coping skills, and understand the motivations behind their actions. As mentioned, CBT can be particularly beneficial for people with factitious disorder because it is designed to help people challenge and change their thought patterns that lead to harmful behaviors.

Family therapy may also be recommended for people with factitious disorder as it helps improve family communication and can provide support during the treatment process.

While medications are not typically used to treat factitious disorder, they may be prescribed if the individual has a co-existing mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

Because initiation and maintenance of treatment can be difficult due to the nature of this disorder, a compassionate, patient, and non-judgmental approach from healthcare providers is crucial.

It’s important to note that each person’s situation is unique, and treatment should be tailored to their specific needs. Early diagnosis and intervention can significantly improve the prognosis for factitious disorder.

Treatment options for malingering

Malingering can’t be treated with medication or therapy, since it is a deliberate behavior focused on personal gain, not a mental health condition. 

The primary approach to dealing with malingering is detection and management. Healthcare providers must carefully evaluate the patient’s symptoms, medical condition, and history. They may also need various diagnostic tests to rule out genuine illnesses.

When malingering is suspected, the most advisable strategy is often indirect confrontation. This means tactfully communicating that the observed symptoms do not align with the clinical findings without directly accusing the person of lying.

In some cases, providing the individual with realistic resources and appropriate treatment options for their issues, like stress or anxiety, can help alleviate the need for malingering. It might also be helpful to connect the person with case management resources to improve their financial situation, as money is the typical goal of malingering.

It should be noted that while a malingerer might still suffer from a genuine psychiatric disorder. Thus, a careful and comprehensive assessment is crucial.

The ultimate goal is to discourage the malingerer’s deceptive behavior and encourage them to seek help for their real issues.

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Treating factitious disorder and malingering with Charlie Health

If you suspect that you or a loved one may be dealing with factitious disorder or malingering, please seek advice from a mental healthcare provider. Both conditions have symptoms that drastically affect your quality of life and should be taken seriously. While malingering is not a diagnosable mental health condition, it can be tied to underlying psychological disorders that may require treatment.

At Charlie Health, we offer personalized, virtual mental health treatment so you can start your healing journey from the comfort of your own home. Our state-of-the-art intensive outpatient program (IOP) combines individual therapy, support groups, family therapy, and psychiatric support (if needed) to match your unique mental health needs. Our compassionate clinicians will meet you where you are, answer your questions, and help you build strategies to overcome your struggles. Reach out today.

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