What is it?
Kleptomania is the irresistible urge to steal items that you don't really need and that usually have little value. It's a serious mental health disorder that can tear your life apart if not treated.
Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder — a disorder in which you can't resist the temptation or drive to perform an act that's harmful to you or someone else.
Many people with kleptomania live lives of secret shame because they're afraid to seek mental health treatment. Although there's no cure for kleptomania, treatment with medication or psychotherapy may be able to help end the cycle of compulsive stealing.
Symptoms of kleptomania may include:
- Powerful urges to steal items that you don't need
- Feeling increased tension leading up to the theft
- Feeling pleasure or gratification while stealing
- Feeling terrible guilt or shame after the theft
A powerful urge
Unlike typical shoplifters, people with kleptomania don't compulsively steal for personal gain. Nor do they steal as a way to exact revenge. They steal simply because the urge is so powerful that they can't resist it. This urge makes them feel uncomfortably anxious, tense or aroused. To soothe these feelings, they steal.
During the theft, they feel relief and gratification. Afterward, though, they feel enormous guilt, remorse, self-loathing and fear of arrest. But the urge comes back, and the kleptomania cycle repeats itself.
Episodes of kleptomania seem to occur spontaneously, without planning. However, stressful events, such as an argument, may trigger an episode of kleptomania.
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. 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. In rarer cases, people with kleptomania may repeatedly pilfer the same kinds of items, such as undergarments. In these cases, the kleptomania may include an element of fetishism.
The cause of kleptomania isn't known. Some research evidence suggests that kleptomania may be linked to problems with a naturally occurring brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate moods and emotions. There's also some evidence that kleptomania may be related to addictive disorders or to obsessive-compulsive disorder. But more research is needed to better understand the possible causes of kleptomania.
Kleptomania is thought to be uncommon. However because many people with kleptomania never seek treatment or they're simply jailed after repeated thefts, many cases of kleptomania may never be diagnosed. It's thought that fewer than 5 percent of shoplifters have kleptomania. Kleptomania often begins during adolescence or in your 20s, but in rare cases it begins during very early childhood or late in life.
Although the cause of kleptomania isn't known, researchers continue to learn more about the factors that may increase the risk of developing kleptomania. These risk factors may include:
- Excessive life stressors, such as a major loss
- Head trauma or brain injuries
- Having blood relatives with kleptomania, mood disorders, addictions or obsessive-compulsive disorder
When you decide to seek treatment for symptoms of possible kleptomania, you may have both a physical and psychological evaluation. The physical exam can determine if there may be any physical causes triggering your symptoms.
There's no laboratory test to diagnose kleptomania. Instead, kleptomania is diagnosed based on your signs and symptoms. Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder. In addition to asking questions about your impulses and how they make you feel, your doctor may review a list of situations to see if they trigger kleptomania episodes. You may also fill out psychological questionnaires or self-assessments to help pinpoint a diagnosis.
To be diagnosed with kleptomania, you must meet criteria spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
Criteria for kleptomania to be diagnosed include:
- You have an inability to resist urges to steal objects that aren't needed for personal use or monetary value.
- You feel increasing tension leading up to the theft.
- You sense feelings of pleasure, relief or gratification during the act of stealing.
- The theft isn't committed as a way to exact revenge or to express anger, and isn't done while hallucinating or delusional.
- The stealing isn't related to manic episodes of bipolar disorder or other mental health disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder.