Kleptomania is a strong urge to steal something which you might not even need. It is considered to be a mental disorder, and the person diagnosed with this disorder is called a kleptomaniac. It is a serious mental health issue, but it is often misunderstood. The person might be rich and easily able to afford the thing they are stealing. They might return it later or not use it, but they are unable to resist the urge to steal. Kleptomania is different from stealing for revenge or personal gain.
Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder (ICD), a condition where a person has an urge to do something which might harm them or others. ICDs are characterised by a repetitive urge to perform a behaviour that leads to adverse consequences, reduced control over the behaviour, and satisfaction after performing the act.
Mental health illness is still a stigma in many communities. There are a myriad of disorders that need our attention as well as awareness. Hence, this article will aim to give you more insight into the mental disorder known as kleptomania.1
Causes of kleptomania
More research is needed to be dedicated to the exploration of kleptomania as its exact causes are still unknown. Studies suggest there are some changes in the brain structure that might cause this compulsive stealing issue. Here are some suggested factors that may cause someone to develop this mental illness:
- Low Serotonin levels: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger which helps in transferring messages from one nerve cell to another). Serotonin helps in regulating moods and emotions. Low levels of serotonin can lead to disorders like kleptomania
- Addiction: When a person drinks alcohol or takes drugs, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released. This can lead to feelings of pleasure and excitement, which makes the person associate the positive feelings with the activity and repeat it
- Underlying mental health issues: Various mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, substance use disorders or eating disorders, can lead to the development of kleptomania.
- Genetics: Some studies suggest genetics to be partly responsible for causing kleptomania. People with a family history of kleptomania or other mental health disorders may be more likely to be affected. However, there is no concrete evidence to imply this
Signs and symptoms of kleptomania
Common symptoms of kleptomania include:
- A powerful urge to steal items that might not be of any use
- Increased anxiety, which leads to the stealing act
- Feeling calm or pleasure after stealing
- Feeling guilty or ashamed of committing theft, later on, often returning, throwing away, hoarding or donating the items
If you suspect that you or your loved one has kleptomania, then contact your GP. There are no specific diagnostic tests to confirm this disorder, but a certified healthcare professional will take your history and ask some questions to confirm the diagnosis. The American Psychiatric Association has released a manual which has five criteria for diagnosing kleptomania:
- Repetitive failure to resist the impulse to steal things that are of no use or financial gain
- Increase in anxiety before committing the theft
- Sense of satisfaction or pleasure during or after committing the theft
- The reason for theft is not due to any vengeance or hallucination
- There is no other explanation for the behaviour, such as bipolar disorder, conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder
Management and treatment for kleptomania
Kleptomania can be considered as a type of addictive behaviour which is done on impulse. Many people feel too ashamed or guilty to open up about their condition. Medication, as well as therapy, can be beneficial in treating the urges leading to kleptomania. The treatment options are as follows:
- Medication: Opioid antagonists block the feelings of pleasure that a person feels after stealing. This could restrict the impulse to steal. Naltrexone has been found to be effective in reducing the symptoms associated with kleptomania. Other medications, such as antidepressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can also be beneficial1,2
- Psychotherapy: A type of psychotherapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating the symptoms associated with kleptomania. It helps in understanding the underlying cause for these impulses and teaches techniques on how to control them.
Kleptomania is not a common disorder and is not diagnosed in most cases. Many people feel ashamed to admit it so they might not be able to get treatment. Symptoms often start during the teenage years. Around 60% of the patients diagnosed with kleptomania are people assigned female at birth (AFAB), with the age of onset being around 17 years of age.3
Some studies suggest that the following can be considered risk factors for kleptomania:
- Family history: If a person has a relative who suffered from kleptomania, then they may be at risk of suffering from this disorder
- Mental health: Existing mental health disorders can be a risk factor for kleptomania
- Trauma: Studies have linked kleptomania with childhood trauma and abuse. Sometimes, the impulses stem from the need to repossess childhood memories or loss2
Many patients remain undiagnosed for a long period of time. If the symptoms are not treated, they can become a financial or legal hazard. Many are caught shoplifting and face jail time. Patients often have other mental health disorders associated with kleptomania, which can disrupt their quality of life. Common disorders that often coexist with kleptomania are:
- compulsive gambling
- Substance use disorder
- Personality disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
How can I prevent kleptomania?
Studies are still not able to pinpoint the exact causes of kleptomania, so prevention techniques are not laid out
How common is kleptomania?
Around 0.6% of the population suffers from kleptomania, making it a rare mental health illness.2
What can I expect if I have kleptomania?
People suffering from kleptomania have difficulty in maintaining relationships due to them having a higher chance of getting arrested and facing legal troubles. Kleptomania is often associated with other mental health disorders, which may be harmful if left untreated.
When should I see a doctor?
If you feel a strong urge to steal something which might not be of any value, then it is better to contact your GP.
Kleptomania refers to an irresistible urge to steal something which might not even be valuable. Kleptomania is an addictive disorder which creates an impulse to steal things, even if later it may be followed by guilt and shame. The disorder most commonly affects people with AFAB, especially those who have low levels of serotonin, who suffer from other mental health disorders, and who have experienced childhood trauma. Treatment for kleptomania includes medication, like opioid antagonists and antidepressants, and psychotherapy, which usually refers to cognitive behavioural therapy. It is important to get timely treatment for kleptomania as it can have a significant impact on a person’s life, leading to legal and financial problems due to shoplifting and other mental health disorders.
- Schreiber L, Odlaug BL, Grant JE. Impulse control disorders: updated review of clinical characteristics and pharmacological management. Front Psychiatry [Internet]. 2011 Feb 21 [cited 2023 Jun 30];2:1. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3089999/
- Talih FR. Kleptomania and potential exacerbating factors. Innov Clin Neurosci [Internet]. 2011 Oct [cited 2023 Jul 3];8(10):35–9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3225132/
- Aboujaoude E, Gamel N, Koran LM. Overview of kleptomania and phenomenological description of 40 patients. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry [Internet]. 2004 [cited 2023 Jul 3];6(6):244–7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535651/