Kleptomania is the irresistible urge to steal items that you generally don't really need and that usually have little value. Kleptomania (klep-toe-MAY-knee-uh) is a serious mental health disorder that can cause much emotional pain to you and your loved ones 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.
Kleptomania symptoms may include:
A powerful urge
During the theft, they feel relief and gratification. Afterward, though, they may feel enormous guilt, remorse, self-loathing and fear of arrest. But the urge comes back, and the kleptomania cycle repeats itself.
Spontaneous occurrences and public places
When to see a doctor
If a loved one has kleptomania
It may be helpful to emphasize the following points:
If you need help preparing for this conversation, talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you to a mental health provider who can help you plan a way of raising your concerns without making your loved one feel defensive or threatened.
The cause of kleptomania isn't known. There are several theories that suggest that changes in the brain may be at the root of kleptomania. 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.
Kleptomania also may be related to addictive disorders, and stealing may cause the release of dopamine (another neurotransmitter). Dopamine causes pleasurable feelings, and some people seek this rewarding feeling again and again.
Other research has found that kleptomania can occur after someone sustains a head injury. More research is needed to better understand all of these possible causes of kleptomania.
Kleptomania is considered 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 young adulthood, but in rare cases it begins after 50 years of age.
Kleptomania risk factors may include:
Preparing for your appointment
If you struggle with an irresistible urge to steal, call your doctor. Making that call will undoubtedly be scary, but trust that your doctor is interested in caring for your health, not in judging you. Your doctor may refer you to a mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist, with experience diagnosing and treating kleptomania.
Use the information below to prepare for your first appointment and learn what to expect from the mental health provider.
What you can do:
For kleptomania, some basic questions to ask your mental health provider include:
What to expect from your mental health provider
Tests and diagnosis
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 a kleptomania diagnosis include:
Left untreated, kleptomania can result in severe emotional, legal and financial problems. For example, many people with known kleptomania have been arrested for shoplifting. Because you know stealing is wrong but you feel powerless to resist the impulse, you may be wracked by guilt, shame, self-loathing and humiliation. You may otherwise lead a moral, upstanding life and be confused and upset by your compulsive stealing.
Complications that kleptomania may cause or be associated with include:
Treatments and drugs
Although fear, humiliation or embarrassment may make it difficult for you to seek treatment for kleptomania, it's important to get help. Kleptomania is difficult to overcome on your own. Treatment of kleptomania typically involves medications and psychotherapy, perhaps along with self-help groups. However, there's no standard kleptomania treatment, and researchers are still trying to understand what may work best. You may have to try several types of kleptomania treatment to find something that works well for your situation.
You may have to try several different medications or combinations of medications to see what works best for you with the fewest side effects. Keep in mind that it may take several weeks to notice full benefits. Talk to your doctor or mental health provider if you're bothered by side effects. Under his or her guidance, you may be able to switch medications or change your dosage. Many side effects eventually go away.
Other forms of therapy, such as psychodynamic therapy, family therapy or marriage counseling, also may be helpful.
Coping and support
Although it may be very difficult to overcome kleptomania on your own, you can take steps to care for yourself with healthy coping skills while getting professional treatment:
Support for loved ones
You may also benefit from talking with a therapist yourself. Recovering from an impulse control disorder is a challenging, long-term undertaking - both for the affected person and those closest to him or her. Make sure you're taking care of your own needs with the stress-reduction outlets that work best for you, such as exercise, meditation or time with friends.
Because the cause of kleptomania isn't clear, it's not yet known how to prevent kleptomania with any certainty. Getting treatment as soon as compulsive stealing begins may help prevent kleptomania from becoming worse or becoming a chronic condition that's difficult to overcome.
Last Updated: 2011-10-05
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