July 27, 2000
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Online support groups can offer an emotional lift to people suffering from a range of illnesses. But they can also attract healthy interlopers looking for attention rather than support, one psychiatrist says.
Although most people who participate in Internet support groups are genuine, sometimes "our heart strings can be tugged for malicious reasons," Dr. Marc D. Feldman of the University of Alabama at Birmingham told Reuters Health.
In the July issue of the Southern Medical Journal, he reports on four cases of what amounts to a "virtual" version of the mental illness Munchausen syndrome. People with Munchausen syndrome feign illness in order to undergo medical treatment. In the case of people who target online support groups, the goal is to be the center of the group's attention.
Online support groups allow people to post messages to each other, sometimes seeking or offering advice but more often simply sharing their experiences. Feldman said he was alerted to the problem of support group imposters by messages to his own Web site on Munchausen syndrome and related conditions.
Because people go into online support groups "with unabashed trust," he said, they are often devastated to find out that a member was dishonest. While Feldman does not want to discourage people from turning to virtual support groups, he said the public should be aware that a "tiny fringe element" misuses the groups.
In one case Feldman describes in his report, a woman claiming to have a baby with cystic fibrosis posted messages to a parents' support group and eventually informed members that her daughter had died. Another mother, however, realized the woman's posts were full of inaccuracies on the illness and its treatment. She alerted other members, and the suspicious woman's posts ended abruptly.
Inaccurate or inconsistent posts are a key warning sign that a support group member may be less than genuine, according to Feldman.
"We also find that they have extreme deteriorations (in their health) followed by miraculous recoveries that just don't ring true," Feldman said.
Besides the emotional toll imposters exact, he noted, some offer group
members medical advice that is at best misleading and at worst "dangerous."