Ganser syndrome is a type of factitious disorder, a mental illness in which a person deliberately and consciously acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. People with Ganser syndrome mimic behavior that is typical of a mental illness, such as schizophrenia. Ganser syndrome is sometimes called "prison psychosis" because it was first observed in prisoners.
People with factitious disorders act this way because of an inner need to be seen as ill or injured -- not to achieve a clear benefit, such as financial gain. They are even willing to undergo painful or risky tests and operations in order to obtain the sympathy and special attention given to people who are truly ill. Factitious disorders are technically considered mental illnesses because they are associated with severe emotional difficulties.
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People with Ganser syndrome have short-term episodes of odd behavior similar to that shown by people with serious mental illnesses. The person may appear confused, make absurd statements, and report hallucinations such as the experience of sensing things that are not there or hearing voices. A classic symptom of Ganser syndrome is vorbeireden. This is when the person gives nonsense answers to simple questions. In addition, a person with this condition may report physical problems such as an inability to move part of the body, called "hysterical paralysis." Loss of memory (amnesia) of the events that occurred during an episode is common.
What Causes Ganser Syndrome?
Little is known about this unusual disorder, but it is believed to be a reaction to extreme stress. Another factor that may contribute to Ganser syndrome is a desire to avoid responsibility or an unpleasant situation. There are also physical problems that may cause the symptoms of Ganser syndrome. These include alcoholism, head injury, and stroke.
Most people with this disorder also have a personality disorder, usually antisocial personality disorder or histrionic personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by irresponsible and aggressive behavior that often involves a disregard for others and an inability to abide by society's rules. People with antisocial personality disorder are sometimes referred to as "sociopaths" or "psychopaths." For people with histrionic personality disorder, their self-esteem depends on the approval of others and does not arise from a true feeling of self-worth. They have an overwhelming desire to be noticed, and often behave dramatically or inappropriately to get attention.
How Common Is Ganser Syndrome?
Ganser syndrome is very rare. It is more common in men than in women and most often occurs in the late teens and early adult years.
How Is Ganser Syndrome Diagnosed?
Diagnosing Ganser syndrome is challenging, not only because some measure of dishonesty is involved but also because it is very rare. In addition, doctors must rule out any possible physical problems, such as stroke or head injury, as the cause of the symptoms before considering a diagnosis of Ganser syndrome.
If the doctor finds no physical reason for the symptoms, he or she may refer the person to a psychiatrist or psychologist, mental health professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for a factitious disorder. The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on the exclusion of actual physical or mental illness and his or her observation of the patient's attitude and behavior.