If you’re new to the Internet – or new to health-realted websites due to a new diagnosis – you might not have any experience of the mentally ill people who sometimes use health-related websites. As I was diagnosed with melanoma in 2000 and T2 diabetes in 2002, I have had a few encounters with these folks on-line. They have always been with us; the advent of the Internet gives them an easily accessible, anonymous forum for interacting with potentially millions of new folks who are often unaware that they’re being used and manipulated to feed a mental illness.
If you want to know what kind of lengths people will go to in order to get social attention around health and illness, please Google the following conditions (I’ve given you the wiki for each as a starting place if you’re interested):
Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy
Histrionic Personality Disorder
The bottom line for me is a healthy, polite skepticism. When people have fantastic tales of woe that don’t seem to add up with the medical literature or the experiences of the vast majority of people with a disease or condition, or which seem to be ever-shifting and seeking endless sympathy and attention, the person in question may not, in fact, be ill with the stated condition (or have a child who is ill with the stated condition) but may in fact be mentally ill and engaging in attention-seeking behavior. Ditto the person who claims to have found a cure for an incurable disease “that the doctors and drug companies don’t want you to know”, or to have secret, insider knowledge about great evil conspiracies lurking within the medical profession, etc.
One red flag is a very self-pitying “I can’t believe how mean you’re being to me” reaction to any skepticism, legitimate questions or reluctance to jump on-board the fantasy wagon. As with most attention-seeking behavior, negative attention is just as “satisfying” as positive attention – doing battle with eight or nine people at the same time over some outrageous claim they’ve made is wholly satisfying to them. They don’t have to receive positive attention in order to meet their emotional goals.
Word to the wise.