People with kleptomania steal things they don’t need and could afford to pay for if they so choose – for a kleptomaniac, stealing isn’t so much about getting something for free as it is about relieving the tension of an overpowering urge.
Kleptomania is a form of impulse control disorder, and since it leads to illegal acts, people with the disorder are often reluctant to admit to their problem and seek help, and are also at great risk of getting caught and facing criminal prosecution.
Although there is no real ‘cure’ for kleptomania, there are treatments that can help minimize the severity of the symptoms and which can help you gain better control over your impulses to steal.
What Is Kleptomania?
According to the APA’s manual of mental health disorders, the DSM- IVr, to meet the diagnostic criteria for kleptomania you must:
- Repeatedly steal things that you don’t need, or which have very little personal or monetary value
- Feel tension before stealing and experience a sense of relief or gratification after the fact
- Not steal as a way to exact revenge or out of intoxication or hallucination
- Not steal because of another mental health disorder, such as mania, a conduct disorder or an antisocial personality disorder1
People with kleptomania feel tension and irresistible urges to steal what are often small items with little personal value. The act of stealing relieves the tension that builds up preceding the act, but feelings of relief and gratification are quickly replaced by feelings of guilt, fear of getting caught and even self revulsion.
People with kleptomania will typically try to control their urges to steal, but be unable to do so.
Who Gets Kleptomania?
It’s not yet understood what causes kleptomania. Hypothesized causes include serotonin abnormalities in the brain and a link to obsessive compulsive type disorders.
Risk factors thought to increase the odds of Kleptomania include
- A history of traumatic brain injury
- Being a woman
- Having a close genetic relative with an obsessive compulsive disorder or kleptomania
- Experiencing a great life stressor2
The age of onset is most commonly the late teen years and the average course of the disease is about 20 years.
How Common Is Kleptomania?
Since people with this disorder rarely seek treatment and are often quite secretive about their actions, the prevalence rate remains unknown. In one recent study, the condition was found to occur in 0.6% of the population.3
Research shows that people with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders and other impulse control disorders are at greater risk to also experience kleptomania.
The vast majority of convicted shoplifters (more than 95%) do not meet the criteria for kleptomania.4
Doctors and scientists are still very much exploring what medications and psychotherapies work best in the treatment of kleptomania, and much remains unknown. What is known, however, is that it is very difficult to overcome kleptomania without treatment and that too many kleptomaniacs avoid getting help out of feelings of shame or out of a fear of prosecution.
Some of the treatments that doctors now sometimes use include:
- Medications, like SSRI anti depressants, mood stabilizers, anti anxiety medications, anti seizure medications, naltrexone and others.
- Psychotherapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Using CBT, you can relearn healthier ways to think and feel and this in turn can help you to change the way you think about yourself and by extension change your everyday behaviors.5
In addition to medical based treatment, some people with kleptomania will also find worthwhile support from self help and support groups like shoplifters anonymous and others.
Since doctors are still learning about the disorder and about what works best to treat it, you may have to experiment with different types of treatments to find one that helps you to manage your urges to steal. Treatment can be slow going and relapse is not uncommon. This doesn’t mean that treatment isn’t working or that progress is unlikely, just that treatment takes time and that patience and commitment is required!
Page last updated 08/07/2015