Clinical Psychology, School Counseling

Kleptomania

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.

Features

People with kleptomania typically exhibit these features or characteristics:

  • Unlike typical shoplifters, people with kleptomania don’t compulsively steal for personal gain, on a dare, for revenge or out of rebellion. They steal simply because the urge is so powerful that they can’t resist it.
  • Episodes of kleptomania generally occur spontaneously, usually without planning and without help or collaboration from another person.
  • Most people with kleptomania steal from public places, such as stores and supermarkets. Some may steal from friends or acquaintances, such as at a party.
  • Often, the stolen items have no value to the person with kleptomania, and the person can afford to buy them.
  • The stolen items are usually stashed away, never to be used. Items may also be donated, given away to family or friends, or even secretly returned to the place from which they were stolen.
  • Urges to steal may come and go or may occur with greater or lesser intensity over the course of time.

Causes

The cause of kleptomania is not known. Several theories suggest that changes in the brain may be at the root of kleptomania. More research is needed to better understand these possible causes, but kleptomania may be linked to:

  • Problems with a naturally occurring brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate moods and emotions. Low levels of serotonin are common in people prone to impulsive behaviors.
  • Addictive disorders. Stealing may cause the release of dopamine (another neurotransmitter). Dopamine causes pleasurable feelings, and some people seek this rewarding feeling again and again.
  • The brain’s opioid system. Urges are regulated by the brain’s opioid system. An imbalance in this system could make it harder to resist urges.

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

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