Kleptomania

You don't need that thing, and you can afford to buy it, but you can't help yourself: You just take it. Kleptomaniacs compulsively steal items that are not needed or have little monetary value and experience pleasure or relief as a result.

Definition

Kleptomania is a condition in which an individual experiences a consistent impulse to steal items not needed for personal use or monetary value. The objects are stolen despite typically being of little value to the individual and are often given away or discarded after being taken.

Kleptomania involves experiencing tension before the theft and feelings of pleasure, gratification, or relief when committing the theft. The stealing is not done to express anger or vengeance or in response to a delusion or hallucination and is not attributable to conduct disorder, a manic episode, or antisocial personality disorder.

Occasionally the individual may hoard the stolen objects or surreptitiously return them. Although someone with this disorder will generally avoid stealing when immediate arrest is probable (such as in full view of a police officer), they usually do not plan the thefts or fully take into account the chances of apprehension. People with kleptomania commonly feel depressed or guilty about the thefts after they occur.

Kleptomania is relatively rare in the general population, with about 0.3 to 0.6 percent of people experiencing this condition.

Symptoms

People with kleptomania have an irresistible impulse to steal. These episodes of stealing occur unexpectedly, without planning. Often they throw away the stolen goods, as they are mostly interested in the act of stealing itself. Kleptomania is distinguished from shoplifting because shoplifters plan the stealing of objects and usually steal because they do not have money to purchase the items. Signs of kleptomania include:

  • Recurrent failure to resist stealing impulses unrelated to personal use or financial need
  • Feeling increased tension right before the theft
  • Feeling pleasure, gratification, or relief at the time of the theft
  • Thefts are not committed in response to delusions, hallucinations or as expressions of revenge or anger
  • Thefts cannot be better explained by Antisocial Personality Disorder, Conduct Disorder or a Manic Episode

The age of onset for kleptomania is variable. It can begin in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood and in rare cases, late adulthood.

Causes

Kleptomania is rare overall, but more common in females than in males. People with kleptomania often have another psychiatric disorder, such as depressive and bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, substance abuse disorders, and other impulse-control disorders. There is evidence linking kleptomania with the neurotransmitter pathways in the brain associated with behavioral addictions, including those associated with the serotonin, dopamine, and opioid systems.

Some clinicians view kleptomania as part of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum of disorders, reasoning that many individuals experience the impulse to steal as an alien, unwanted intrusion into their mental state. Also, other evidence indicates that kleptomania may be related to, or a variant of, mood disorders such as depression.

Treatments

The treatment for kleptomania may include a combination of psychopharmacology and psychotherapy.

Psychological counseling or therapy

Counseling or therapy may be in a group or one-on-one setting. It is usually aimed at dealing with underlying psychological problems that may be contributing to kleptomania. Possible treatments include:

  • Behavior modification therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy

Medications used for treatment

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which raise serotonin levels in the brain:

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac), most commonly used
  • Fluvoxamine (Luvox)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)

References

  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • National Health Information Center
  • Christianini, A. R., Conti, M. A., Hearst, N., Cordás, T. A., de Abreu, C. N., & Tavares, H. (2015). Treating kleptomania: cross-cultural adaptation of the Kleptomania Symptom Assessment Scale and assessment of an outpatient program. Comprehensive psychiatry, 56, 289-294.  

Last reviewed 03/01/2018