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Kleptomania is a psychological disorder affecting around 6 in 1,000 people according to statistics. However, the true number could be far greater than this, as many people don’t seek professional assistance when they have this condition. Interestingly, 65% of kleptomaniacs also have bulimia and the condition usually begins in late adolescence or early adulthood. In terms of gender, women are much more likely to suffer from this condition than men.
Being an impulse control disorder, it might come as no surprise that up to 46% of kleptomaniacs also have other impulse control disorders, while over half also have a mood disorder.
Furthermore (and interestingly!), there have been cases of kleptomania developing after a head injury.
What is kleptomania?
Kleptomania is a psychological condition when a person feels an irresistible and overpowering urge to steal. Even though they know and understand stealing to be wrong and they are aware they could end up in trouble, they simply cannot stop.
People who suffer from kleptomania aren’t stealing due to a flaw in their character, a lack of self-control or poor willpower. Rather, it is down to a medical problem impacting their ability to resist their impulses to steal – and it is recurrent.
People who have this condition commonly feel stress, shame and guilt. For this reason, lots of them try to compensate by taking the items back, going back to pay for them, or donating them to charity.
It’s also very common for people who have kleptomania to hide their secret because they’re ashamed and afraid to seek help. Though a cure for kleptomania doesn’t exist per se, there are many treatments like talking therapies (psychotherapy) or medications that can help to end the recurrent compulsive stealing.
What causes kleptomania?
Not even medical experts know what causes kleptomania. However, there have been some suggestions. Let’s take a look at them.
Brain structure differences
It is believed that those with kleptomania are much more likely to have differences in specific areas of their brain structure. This is specifically in the areas that deal with inhibitions and impulse control. The differences might mean there are fewer or weaker connections in these areas.
Brain chemistry differences
The brain makes use of specialist chemicals called neurotransmitters. These manage and communicate certain processes. In some cases, kleptomania has developed after a patient has taken a medication that affects the neurotransmitters. However, cases like this are rare and more research is needed to understand this.
Low levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter) could be a cause. Low serotonin levels are frequently found in people who are prone to demonstrating impulsive behaviours.
Due to another mental health condition
Some people believe kleptomania is a symptom rather than a condition in its own right. It is very common for people who have kleptomania to have other mental health problems like depression, anxiety, addictions, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Kleptomaniacs also have a higher risk of suicide and self-harm.
Researchers don’t yet know if it is possible to inherit kleptomania or if having the condition in your family can increase your chances of developing the condition. What is known, however, is that kleptomaniacs often have mental health conditions within their family – things like mood disorders, anxiety and substance abuse, though there is no concrete evidence of a genetic link.
It is thought that stealing releases dopamine, which is another neurotransmitter. This causes feelings of pleasure and so people repeat the actions to give them this rewarding feeling.
The opioid system in the brain
It is this system that regulates our urges to do things. It is thought that when this system isn’t balanced well, resisting urges is more difficult.
What are the signs and symptoms of kleptomania?
The symptoms of kleptomania might include:
- Not being able to resist urges to steal things that aren’t needed.
- Feeling tense, anxious or aroused before stealing.
- Feeling gratification, relief or pleasure when stealing.
- Feeling remorse, shame, guilt, fear of arrest, and self-loathing after stealing.
- Urges to steal returning and repeating the cycle of kleptomania.
In terms of characteristics, people who suffer from kleptomania often exhibit similar features:
- They don’t steal compulsively for their personal gain, for revenge, to rebel or because someone dares them to.
- They steal because they can’t resist the urge to do so.
- Kleptomania episodes are often spontaneous. They’re not usually planned and don’t have others collaborating or helping.
- The majority of kleptomaniacs steal from a public place like a supermarket or a shop. Some steal from people they know and their friends, e.g., at a party.
- Oftentimes, the person who has kleptomania can actually afford the items and they have no value to them.
- Typically, things that are stolen are put away somewhere and never used. They’re often donated, given away to friends and family, or returned in secret to the place they were stolen from.
- The urges a person feels to steal might vary or they could occur with lesser or greater intensity over time.
How common is kleptomania?
Kleptomania is classed as being uncommon and only affects 0.6% of the population. However, of all the people who are arrested for shoplifting, as many as 24% have the condition.
According to Psychology Today, the condition is three times more prevalent in women compared to men.
Can kleptomania be prevented?
Since the causes of kleptomania aren’t clear, it isn’t known whether or not we can prevent the condition. However, as soon as there are signs and symptoms of kleptomania becoming apparent, getting treatment will stop the conditioning from worsening and taking hold.
How does kleptomania affect someone’s life?
The human brain is somewhat like a complex computer system. It has an intricate network of various connections that go between the different regions of the brain. These connections form circuits that the brain uses to help make thoughts and turn them into actions. Every time something new is learned, a new circuit is made.
When learning not to do a certain action, the brain creates a prohibitive circuit – these inhibitions are important for our well-being and survival. They’re also useful in general situations as they keep us from saying or doing things that other people would class as unacceptable.
People with kleptomania absolutely know that it is wrong to steal but despite knowing they shouldn’t do it, they can’t stop themselves. In these cases, therefore, the brain’s inhibition isn’t working properly. People with the condition are also not able to deter themselves from stealing even though they know they could be arrested and sent to prison.
Besides the obvious mental unease surrounding stealing and the guilt felt, there are obvious serious repercussions in terms of breaking the law. Lots of kleptomaniacs do get caught stealing and get arrested. This can affect their personal lives as well as their jobs.
How is kleptomania diagnosed?
According to the DSM-5 (the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition), there are five separate criteria that people must meet to be able to be diagnosed with kleptomania.
These criteria include:
- Repeated attempts to not steal are unsuccessful and the items stolen weren’t taken for a need or to exchange or sell for money.
- Feeling anticipation or tension before stealing something.
- Feeling pleasure, relief or other positive emotions like feeling “high” after stealing.
- Stealing isn’t due to an emotional response like revenge or anger, and it isn’t down to hallucinations or delusions (false beliefs).
- The problem can’t be explained by other mental health problems like manic behaviour, conduct disorder, or antisocial personality disorder.
Are there tests to diagnose the condition?
There are no tests to diagnose this condition, but diagnosticians might recommend some tests to rule other conditions out. A healthcare provider is the best person to recommend tests.
Diagnosing the conditions
When patients decide to seek diagnosis or treatment for possible kleptomania, they may have a psychological or physical evaluation. The physical exam will be able to determine if there are any medical causes of the condition.
Kleptomania is based on a set of signs and symptoms. In order to diagnose the condition, a doctor will:
- Ask about impulses a patient has and how it makes them feel.
- Review situations and ask if they trigger episodes of kleptomania.
- Get a patient to complete self-assessments and psychological questionnaires.
- Use the DSM-5 criteria.
How is kleptomania treated?
There isn’t one single way to treat kleptomania and there is limited information on the best possible treatments. This is due to the fact that most people who have kleptomania will rarely seek help of their own accord. This means it is difficult to research treatment options.
The treatments that are the most likely are two different categories: medication and psychotherapy.
One of the first medical treatments offered is opioid antagonists like naltrexone. These block opioid medication effects. Research supports these as being effective. Essentially, they block the positive feelings people get when they steal. This can help them resist their urges.
Other possible medicines include lithium, anticonvulsant drugs, and antidepressants – specifically SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
Also known as talking therapy, psychotherapy usually means a patient talking to a professional and working out why they behave in certain ways. Psychotherapy can help people to change their behaviour.
For kleptomania, psychotherapy could be CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), hypnosis or group therapy.
CBT can help patients learn how to control their urges to steal in three ways:
- Covert sensitisation
This is when a patient pictures themselves stealing and facing a negative consequence as a result (i.e., being arrested).
- Aversion therapy
This is a practice whereby the patient uses techniques that are mildly painful like holding their breath until it becomes uncomfortable whenever the urge to steal arises.
- Systematic desensitisation
This involves practising relaxation techniques whereby the patient pictures themselves controlling their urges.
Avoiding a relapse
Like any condition that is based on impulses, kleptomania relapses are common. To avoid them as much as possible, patients are told to stick to their treatment plan. They are advised to contact a mental health professional or a trusted friend or family member whenever the urge comes.
Coping with kleptomania and getting support
Alongside other medical treatments, it’s important for patients to work hard at understanding their condition and knowing how to cope with it.
Here are some things patients should do:
- Stick to their treatment plan. It’s important to take all medications as directed and attend therapy sessions as scheduled. It will be hard work and there will be setbacks occasionally.
- Learn about their kleptomania. Learning about kleptomania can help patients to understand their risk factors, triggers and treatments.
- Understanding triggers. If patients can identify their feelings, thoughts or situations that occur when urges arise, they can try to prevent them.
- Ensure treatment for other conditions is sought. For example, if there are other mental health problems like depression, anxiety, stress or substance abuse, these should be treated too to avoid an unhealthy behaviour pattern.
- Look for healthy outlets. Patients should try to re-channel their urges to shoplift or steal through hobbies and exercise.
- Learn stress management and relaxation. Patients are encouraged to try things like yoga, tai chi and meditation.
- Try to keep focused on their goals. Patients are encouraged to try and keep focused and understand that recovering from kleptomania will take time.
How family and friends can help loved ones through recovery
If a loved one is treated for kleptomania, it is important for their friends and family to help support them. It might even be useful for them to attend the therapy sessions too.
It might also be beneficial for family and friends to speak to a therapist as well. It is a challenge to recover from a long-term impulse control disorder and it can be stressful for families too.
People who suffer from kleptomania might benefit from joining a self-help group. If there is no group available for kleptomania specifically, other addiction meetings might be helpful.
What to expect from a first appointment
Making the first appointment is the hardest step to overcome.
In order to better understand the symptoms, the mental health professional might ask:
- When was the first experience of the urge to steal?
- How often does the urge to steal manifest itself?
- Have you ever been arrested or caught stealing?
- How do you feel before, during and after stealing something?
- What types of things do you steal? Do you need these things?
- When are you most likely to steal?
- What happens to the things you steal?
- Have you noticed any triggers?
- How does the urge to steal affect your life? Including work or school, and personal life.
- Is there a family history of compulsive stealing or other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, drug or alcohol misuse?
- Do you drink alcohol or take recreational drugs? If so, how often?
- Do you have any other mental health issues like eating disorders? If so, what treatment has worked for you?
- Do you have any other medical conditions?
Final thoughts on kleptomania
Kleptomania is a potentially serious mental health condition that affects patients with urges to steal. Often, kleptomaniacs will have a spontaneous urge to steal and will steal things they don’t need. Stealing with kleptomania comes with a lot of guilt and shame. Often people hide what they steal and don’t use it. They will give it to friends, family and charities. Sometimes people even return it secretly to the store they stole it from or go back and pay for it.
Because the causes of kleptomania aren’t fully understood, treatment will vary from person to person. It might involve medication, psychotherapy or a mixture of the two. It’s also important for patients to get a good support network around them.