In Mr. L’s case, malingering presented as suicidal behavior with an inadvertently high fatality risk. Notably, Mr. L came to an emergency room a few days before this admission after swallowing 5 acetaminophen tablets in a suicide attempt, which did not lead to a medical or psychiatric hospitalization. In an attempt to ensure admission, Mr. L then took a potentially lethal dose of 20 acetaminophen tablets. In our assessment and according to his statements, the primary motivation for the suicide attempt was to obtain reliable food and housing. Mr. L’s developmental disability might have contributed to a relative lack of understanding of the consequences of his actions. In addition, poor overall communication and coping skills led to an exaggerated response to psychosocial stressors.
Malingering and suicide attempts
Few studies have investigated malingering in regards to suicide and other psychiatric emergencies. In a study of 227 consecutive psychiatric emergencies assessed for evidence of malingering, 13% were thought to be feigned or exaggerated.6 Interestingly, the most commonly reported secondary gain was food and shelter, similar to Mr. L. This study did not report the types of psychiatric emergencies, therefore suicidal actions associated with malingering could not be evaluated.
In another study, 40 patients hospitalized for suicidal ideation (n = 29, 72%) or suicidal gestures (n = 11, 28%) in a large, urban tertiary care center were evaluated for malingering by anonymous report of feigned or exaggerated symptoms.7 Most of these patients were diagnosed with a mood disorder (28%) and/or an adjustment disorder (53%). Four (10%) admitted to malingering. Among the malingerers, reasons for feigning illness included:
- wanting to be hospitalized
- wanting to make someone angry or feel sorry
- gaining access to detoxification programs
- getting treatment for emotional problems.
Interestingly, an analysis of demographic factors associated with malingering reveals an association with suicide attempts but not persistent suicidal ideations. This could be because of selection bias; patients who reported a suicide attempt might be more likely to be hospitalized.
A follow-up study8 evaluated 50 additional consecutive psychiatric inpatients admitted to the same tertiary care hospital for suicide risk. Unlike the previous study, a larger proportion of these patients had made a suicide attempt (n = 21, 42%) and a greater number had made a previous suicide attempt (n = 33, 66%). Primary mood disorders comprised most of the psychiatric diagnoses (n = 28, 56%). In this study, the exact nature of the suicide gestures was not documented, leaving open the question of lethality of the attempts. These studies do not suggest that those who malinger are not at risk for suicide, only that these patients tend to exaggerate the severity of their ideations or behaviors.
OUTCOME Reluctantly discharged
We contact Mr. L’s siblings, who offer to provide temporary housing and financial support and assist him with medical needs. This abated Mr. L’s suicidal ideation; however, he wishes to remain in the hospital with the goals of obtaining eyeglasses and dentures. We explain that psychiatric hospitalization is no longer indicated and he is discharged.
Which of the following is the most effective management strategy for malingering?
a) direct confrontation of the malingering patient
b) immediate discharge once malingering is identified
c) evaluation for possible comorbid psychiatric conditions
d) neuropsychiatric consultation
The authors’ observations
The challenges of treating patients who malinger include clinician uncertainty in making the diagnosis and high variability in occurrence across settings (Table 1). Current estimates indicate that 4% to 8% of medical and psychiatric cases not involved in litigation or compensation have an element of feigned symptoms.3,9 The rate could be higher in specific circumstances such as medicolegal disputes and criminal cases.10
The societal impact of malingering is significant. Therefore, identifying these patients is an important clinical intervention that can have a wide impact.11 However, it is also important to acknowledge that genuine psychiatric illness could be comorbid with malingering. Although differentiating a patient’s true from feigned symptoms can be difficult, it is critical to carefully evaluate the patient in order to provide the best treatment.
It seems that physicians can detect malingering, but documentation often is not provided. In the Rissmiller et al study,7 all 4 cases of malingering were identified retrospectively by study psychiatrists; however, none of their medical records included documentation of malingering, a finding also reported in the Yates et al study.6 Also concerning, the clinicians suspected malingering in some patients who were not feigning symptoms, suggesting that a relatively high threshold is necessary for making the diagnosis.