Kleptomania is an inability to resist impulses of stealing.

Understanding Kleptomania

A person with kleptomania is compelled to steal things.  Often the things they steal are of little or no value and the objects they take are not needed for personal use or for their monetary value.

Another aspect of 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 attributed to conduct disorder, a manic episode or antisocial personality disorder. Some kleptomaniacs may not even be consciously aware that they have committed the theft until later.

Occasionally the kleptomaniac 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. The stealing is done without collaboration with others.

Kleptomania is distinguished from shoplifting or ordinary theft, as shoplifters and thieves generally steal for monetary value, or associated gains and usually display intent or premeditation, while people with kleptomania are not necessarily contemplating the value of the items they steal, or even the theft itself, until they are compulsed.  Ordinary theft, as opposed to kleptomania, is deliberate and is motivated by the usefulness of the object or its monetary worth.

Some individuals, especially adolescents, may also steal on a dare, as an act of rebellion, or as a rite of passage. The diagnosis of kleptomania is not made unless other characteristic features of Kleptomania are also present. Kleptomania is rare, whereas shoplifting is relatively common. In malingering, individuals may simulate the symptoms of kleptomania to avoid criminal prosecution.  

There is little systematic information on the course of kleptomania, but three typical courses have been described: sporadic kleptomania with brief episodes and long periods of remission; episodic kleptomania with protracted periods of stealing and periods of remission; and chronic kleptomania with some degree of fluctuation. The disorder may continue for years, despite multiple convictions for shoplifting.

The DSM-IV identifies Kleptomania with the following diagnostic criteria:

A. Recurrent failure to resist impulses to steal objects that are not needed for personal use or for their monetary value.
B. Increasing sense of tension immediately before committing the theft.
C. Pleasure, gratification, or relief at the time of committing the theft.
D. The stealing is not committed to express anger or vengeance and is not in response to a delusion or hallucination.
E. The stealing is not better accounted for by Conduct Disorder, a Manic Episode, or Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Causes of Kleptomania

Kleptomania occurs in fewer than 5% of identified shoplifters.  Kleptomania is more common in females than in males.  The average age is about 35, although some individuals report the onset of kleptomania as early as age five.

Professionals have not yet identified the causes of kleptomania, but there is evidence linking it with abnormalities in the brain chemical serotonin. Stressors such as major losses may also precipitate kleptomaniac behavior.  People with kleptomania often have another psychiatric disorder, often a mood disorder such as depression and anxiety or an obsessive-compulsive disorder.   Eating Disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa) and substance abuse disorders are common in individuals with kleptomania.

Treatment of Kleptomania

A variety of therapies have been used to treat this disorder, but it is not clear which one is best.  Counseling or therapy in a group or one-on-one setting can be very helpful. It is usually aimed at dealing with underlying psychological problems that may be contributing to kleptomania. It may also include behavior therapy, traditional psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapyfamily therapy, reality therapy and medication.

Several recent case reports have shown that Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) could be effective in the treatment of kleptomania just as it is in other obsessive-compulsive disorders.   Some medications that are used for people diagnosed with kleptomania are fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, sertraline, lithium, trazodone and Valproate.

Normally the prognosis for recovery of kleptomania is fair, but can increase with a positive therapeutic relationship and a strong motivation to change the behavior. Kleptomania often goes untreated and results in legal difficulties.

Additional Information

For more information about kleptomania and other mental health problems, please click on the linked website listed below.

 Psychology Today article on kleptomania

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