Stealing: Kleptomania Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment


People with kleptomania cannot resist the urge to steal items for the sake of stealing, not because they need or want the items, or because they cannot afford to buy them. Kleptomania is not the same thing as shoplifting. Most people who shoplift take things they want, need or cannot afford, or — as in the case of some teen shoplifters — because of peer pressure. Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder. Impulse control disorders are mental illnesses that involve the repeated failure to resist impulses, or urges, and to act in ways that are dangerous or harmful. People with these disorders know they can hurt themselves or others by acting on the impulses, but they cannot stop themselves.


How common is kleptomania?

Although shoplifting is common, true kleptomania is quite rare (0.3 to 0.6 percent of the general population). It has been estimated that between 4 and 24 percent of shoplifters have kleptomania. It is difficult to know exactly how many people have this disorder because it involves secrecy and deception. Kleptomania seems to be more common in females than in males.

What causes kleptomania?

Little is known about the exact cause of kleptomania. Researchers are looking at a possible link between impulse control disorders — including kleptomania — and certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help nerve cells in the brain send messages to each other. An imbalance of these chemicals can affect how the brain controls impulses. It is believed that major stress might trigger the impulsive behavior.

People with kleptomania often have other mental disorders as well. The most common are depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse disorders. This suggests that there also might be a link between these disorders and the development of kleptomania.

What are the symptoms of kleptomania?

A person with kleptomania has a recurring drive to steal that he or she cannot resist. Some people with this disorder might feel guilty afterward and even try to return the objects they steal. Other symptoms that occur with kleptomania include the following:

  • Sense of tension and excitement related to the impulse.
  • Feeling of relief, satisfaction and/or pleasure after acting on an impulse to steal an item.
  • Unplanned stealing that is done on the spur-of-the-moment.
  • Stealing that is not done out of anger or to “get back at” someone.

How is kleptomania diagnosed?

If symptoms are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical examination. There are no tests — such as X-rays or blood tests — to diagnose kleptomania, although tests might be used to rule out any physical cause for the behavior, such as a head injury or brain disorder.

The doctor might refer the person to a psychiatrist or psychologist (healthcare professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses). Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for an impulse control disorder.

How is kleptomania treated?

Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) is the main treatment for impulse control disorders. The goal of therapy is to help the person understand why he or she acts on the impulse, and to learn how to respond to the urges in a more appropriate way. It also is important to treat any other disorders that might be present, such as depression or anxiety.

Treatment for kleptomania typically focuses on behavior management. In some cases, medication might be used as part of the treatment program. Certain antidepressant medications, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), might be useful in helping to curb very intense urges.

Other medications are being studied for use in people with kleptomania. One drug, naltrexone (Revia®, Vivitrol®), has shown some promise in controlling impulse-based behavior. The drug is now used to help alcoholics control the urge to drink.

Can kleptomania be prevented?

There is no known way to prevent kleptomania. However, getting treatment as soon as symptoms appear might help decrease any possible disruption to the person’s life, family and friendships. Further, it might be helpful for the person to avoid situations that might trigger the urge to steal; for example, staying away from stores during times of stress.

What is the outlook for people with kleptomania?

Treatment for kleptomania has been found to be successful in some cases although, due to the secrecy involved, many people with this disorder never seek treatment at all. Evidence suggests, however, that the impulse to steal might decrease as a person gets older.

People with kleptomania might have problems with relationships due to stealing from their family members and friends. Work-related problems also might occur if a person with kleptomania steals from his or her employer. Because stealing is a crime, people with kleptomania are at risk for legal problems. Often, a person with kleptomania seeks treatment only when forced to do so by the legal system.

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