Kleptomania is a mental health disorder characterized by the repeated inability to resist the urge to steal items that are generally not needed. Unlike typical shoplifters, people with kleptomania do not steal for personal gain, revenge, or rebellion. They steal simply because the urge is so powerful that they cannot resist it. The stolen items often have little value, and the person can afford to buy them. Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder, where individuals have difficulty resisting excessive or harmful actions or behaviors.
Episodes of kleptomania usually occur suddenly and without planning, and most individuals steal from public places, such as stores. Although kleptomania is rare, it can be a serious condition causing emotional distress to the person and their loved ones, and even legal problems if left untreated.
Kleptomania symptoms may include:
People with kleptomania typically have these features or characteristics:
If you find it difficult to stop shoplifting or stealing, seek medical advice. Many people with kleptomania avoid seeking treatment due to fear of legal consequences, but mental health providers usually do not report thefts to authorities. Seeking help is important to prevent potential legal problems and address the emotional distress caused by compulsive stealing.
If you suspect a loved one may have kleptomania, approach them gently and without judgment or blame. Express your concern for their well-being, the risks associated with compulsive stealing, and the available treatments to help minimize the urge to steal and live without addiction and shame.
The exact causes of kleptomania are not known, but research suggests that changes in the brain and learned patterns of stealing may contribute to the disorder. Kleptomania may be linked to problems with brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, as well as the brain’s opioid system. Additionally, the act of stealing may provide temporary relief from urges, leading to a reinforcing habit that is hard to break.
Risk factors for kleptomania may include a family history of kleptomania or addictive disorders, as well as the presence of other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or substance use disorders.
Untreated kleptomania can lead to severe emotional, family, work, legal, and financial problems. It may cause feelings of guilt, shame, self-loathing, and humiliation. Additionally, individuals with kleptomania may be at risk of developing other impulse-control disorders, substance misuse, personality disorders, eating disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and even suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
As the exact causes of kleptomania are unclear, specific prevention methods are not yet established. However, seeking treatment as soon as compulsive stealing begins may help prevent kleptomania from worsening and prevent some of the negative consequences associated with the disorder.
From Project Semicolon to your inbox
Sign up for free and stay up to date on advancements, health tips, current health topics, and expertise on managing health.
Kleptomania is diagnosed based on your symptoms. When seeking treatment for possible kleptomania, a physical exam and psychological evaluation may be conducted to rule out any medical causes triggering the symptoms. Your mental health provider may ask questions about your impulses, triggers for kleptomania episodes, problems caused by this behavior, and may have you fill out questionnaires or self-assessments. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association is also used as a guideline to help pinpoint a diagnosis.
Treatment for kleptomania typically involves a combination of medicines and psychotherapy, sometimes along with self-help groups. Although there is little scientific research on using psychiatric medicines for kleptomania, certain medicines may help, depending on your situation and whether you have other mental health disorders. These may include an addiction treatment medicine called naltrexone or an antidepressant such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).
Psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is a common form of treatment for kleptomania. CBT helps you identify unhealthy beliefs and behaviors and replace them with healthier ones. Skill-building techniques may include systematic desensitization, counter-conditioning, covert sensitization, and aversion therapy to help you control kleptomania urges.
Avoiding relapses is also important, and following your treatment plan, seeking support when needed, and staying motivated can help in preventing relapses of kleptomania.
While receiving professional treatment, you can take steps to care for yourself with healthy coping skills, such as educating yourself about kleptomania, identifying triggers, getting treatment for substance misuse or other mental health problems, finding healthy outlets, and learning relaxation and stress management techniques.
For loved ones, it’s essential to understand the details of the treatment plan and actively support its success. Attending therapy sessions with the person with kleptomania can be helpful in learning about triggers and coping strategies. Additionally, taking care of your own needs and seeking support for yourself can be beneficial.
People with kleptomania may benefit from participating in self-help groups based on 12-step programs or those designed for addiction problems, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. These groups can provide support and strategies for managing the urges to steal.
If you suspect you have kleptomania, talk to your health care provider. Be honest about your symptoms and concerns. You may be referred to a mental health provider with experience in diagnosing and treating kleptomania. Consider taking a trusted family member or friend along to help remember details and share information with the mental health provider.
Before your appointment, make a list of your symptoms, personal information, medical history, medications, and questions you want to ask your provider to make the most of your appointment.