Kleptomania: Causes, Risk Factors & Treatment Options

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An Overview of Kleptomania

While the actual number of people suffering from kleptomania is unknown, experts put the figure at six people out of 1,000 with the disorder, or 1.2 million people out of a population of 200 million. It was first formally identified as a psychiatric disease in 1838, physicians and law enforcement personnel knew about the condition even before then.

Kleptomania is thought to account for approximately 100,000 shoplifting arrests per year and about $500 million in retail losses nationwide in a typical year. Kleptomania appears to disproportionally affect women more so than men.

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It’s listed in the Diagnostic Standard Manual (DSM) along with many other impulse control disorders such as pyromania (setting fires) and trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling). Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use this reference book to diagnose mental illnesses. The disease often begins in adolescence, with people seeking treatment by midlife.

Unlike other thieves, kleptomaniacs feel intense guilt and remorse after stealing something. Anxiety propels them to steal, with rising anxiety levels that can only be soothed by the action of stealing. The release from stealing and getting away with the theft makes them temporarily feel better, but when they consider their crime, they feel extremely guilty. Guilt and the fear of being caught causes anxiety levels to rise again, which in turn pushes them back out the door and shoplifting or stealing items again.

How Kleptomania Differs from Typical Stealing or Shoplifting

There are several key differences between shoplifting and kleptomania. The resulting actions of both shoplifters and kleptomaniacs are crimes, but the impetus behind the actions differ.

  • Intention: Shoplifters know they are going into a store to steal something. They aren’t doing it for the thrill but to acquire something they couldn’t afford in the first place. Kleptomaniacs release anxiety by shoplifting and often steal things they don’t want or need. It’s the act of stealing that’s important to them rather than the object they steal.
  • Compulsion: Shoplifters can stop stealing at any time. They have control over their actions. Kleptomaniacs act from compulsion. Compulsions are difficult to stop once they begin and can rapidly take over one’s thought patterns.
  • Remorse and guilt: Shoplifters may or may not feel guilty about their theft. Some shoplift routinely as a business model to resell items or fund a drug habit. Kleptomaniacs feel intense guilt and remorse after their actions.

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The Causes of Kleptomania

While we don’t know the exact causes of kleptomania, we have a good idea because the disease closely resembles other compulsive disorders. Based on that connection, we believe they share similar causes, including:

  • Low serotonin: Today’s mental and behavioral health professionals think obsessive-compulsive disorders are caused by problems with a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that transmits messages or signals between nerves. Serotonin helps regulate mood and behaviors. People with chronically low levels of serotonin are more prone to impulsive behavior and obsessive thoughts and behavior patterns.
  • Low dopamine: Dopamine is the “feel good” brain chemical released after pleasurable activities. It’s also released in massive quantities after ingesting certain drugs, and it’s what often fuels cravings for addictive substances and behaviors. After completing a pleasurable act, the levels of dopamine in the brain rise, then fall. It’s thought that compulsions cause the release of more dopamine, giving the compulsive person a “high” feeling after completing the action. The brain craves more dopamine after the initial release.
  • Imbalanced opioid system: The brain’s opioid system controls pain signals, the brain’s reward center and addictive behaviors. Professionals believe something is amiss in the brains of people with compulsive disorders since they seek inappropriate rewards or greater rewards despite risks, and they become addicted to the rewards even though they feel guilt and remorse.
  • Brain changes or injuries: Injuries to the orbital and frontal lobes of the brain can cause serious complications, including kleptomania. Other injuries to the brain, including changes in the axons and dendrites, may also be one of the causes of kleptomania.

Kleptomania Risk Factors

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Kleptomaniacs often know they have a problem controlling the impulse to steal. But who becomes a kleptomaniac? What are the risk factors?

The following list includes known risk factors for kleptomania. Because the disease is poorly understood, it may not contain every possible risk factor.

Risks for kleptomania include:

  • Family history: Kleptomania may be genetically or environmentally related. Research has shown having close family members with kleptomania increases your chance of having it, too. Having a family member with alcoholism, drug addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder also greatly increases your chance of developing kleptomania.
  • Head injuries: Some people develop kleptomania after a severe head trauma or brain injury. Head traumas can occur from accidents or illness.
  • Gender: Over two-thirds of people diagnosed with kleptomania are women. It disproportionally affects women over men.
  • Mental illness: Many kleptomaniacs also have other concurrent mental illnesses. It’s common to see other obsessive-compulsive disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders or substance abuse disorders among kleptomaniacs. It’s possible these disorders stem from the same cause.

Life With a Kleptomaniac

Kleptomania is a hidden disease. It’s often hard for family or friends to tell someone has the disease. You may notice whenever you go shopping, your loved one has something you didn’t see him or her pay for. Your loved one may hide these items at home. You may find stashes of stolen items, usually small things that don’t make sense.

The more common scenario is you get a panicked, tear-filled phone call from the local jail after your loved one is picked up for shoplifting. At first, you think it’s a simple misunderstanding. After multiple calls or arrests, you realize there’s a bigger problem at work, one that no amount of tears, pleading or community service will cure.

If you think someone you love has kleptomania, it’s important to share your concerns and fears. It’s also important to understand kleptomania isn’t something your loved one can control. No amount of yelling, pleading or threats can get him or her to change the behavior. Your loved one can, however, seek treatment for kleptomania.

Help With Kleptomania

To get help for kleptomania for yourself or a loved one, you must first admit there is a problem. After admitting there is a problem, you can then face facts and take steps to deal with your problem.

A psychiatrist is the best professional to diagnose kleptomania. To find a psychiatrist who treats kleptomania patients, visit your family physician or internist, or consult with your insurance company directory for doctors listed in your plan. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose, treat and prescribe medications for mental illnesses.

5-HelpAt your first visit with a psychiatrist, he or she will take notes on your medical history as well as your symptoms. The doctor will also need to know any prescription or over-the-counter medications, as well as any vitamins or supplements you are taking.

A psychiatrist may ask you some or all of these questions to better understand and diagnose your condition:

  • How old were you when you began stealing?
  • Can you resist the urge to steal? If so, when? If not, what does it feel like?
  • Have you ever been caught stealing? If so, were you arrested? How did you feel about that?
  • What do you steal? Is it something you need? Or, do you steal random objects?
  • Who do you steal from: stores, family, friends?
  • What do you do with the things you steal?
  • How do you feel after you steal?
  • Can you remember what triggers the urge to steal?
  • Does anyone else in your family steal items? Has anyone in your family been treated for a drug or alcohol addiction or a mental health disorder such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder?
  • Do you drink alcohol, take drugs or smoke cigarettes? If so, how often and how much?
  • How is your urge to steal affecting your life, health and relationships?
  • Are you being treated for any medical or psychiatric disease right now?
  • Have you ever had a head injury? If so, when did it happen and what happened?

To receive an official diagnosis of kleptomania, a psychiatrist will look for at least several if not all of the following characteristics:

  • You have a recurrent urge to steal objects. This urge is hard to resist, and you often steal objects that have no useful purpose.
  • You experience increased tension and anxiety before stealing, which is relieved and replaced by positive emotions immediately after stealing.
  • You feel pleasure, relief or gratification later on after stealing the item.
  • Your stealing isn’t motivated by survival needs or to get back at someone. You’re not targeting a particular person or store by your thefts.
  • Your stealing habit isn’t related to any other mental disorder.

You can also learn more about the common signs and symptoms of kleptomania here. It can be embarrassing to receive a diagnosis of kleptomania. But there’s no shame in having a disease. You wouldn’t be embarrassed if the doctor told you you had skin cancer, would you?

Kleptomania and other obsessive-compulsive disorders are diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. There’s no shame in the fact your neurotransmitters aren’t functioning the way other people’s are. You may even have some other injury to the brain that’s causing your behavior.

Treatment for Kleptomania

When you get help with kleptomania, your doctor may provide several treatment options for kleptomania. The most common treatment option is medication.

Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescription medications that change how the brain processes the neurotransmitter serotonin. Chemicals such as serotonin typically circulate in the brain, where they are absorbed or “taken up” by specialized neurons. SSRIs change the balance in how much serotonin is available to the neurons. SSRIs help keep more serotonin circulating in the brain, which boosts mood and improves impulse control. Many people report an improvement in their impulse control and relief from compulsions after several months on SSRI medications.

A doctor may prescribe a second medication called an opioid antagonist. Opioid antagonists can block pleasurable feelings, which disrupts the risk-reward cycle of stealing and the pleasurable feelings afterward.

In addition to medication, individual therapy and group therapy can prove helpful for kleptomaniacs and others suffering from compulsion disorders. Some doctors use desensitization therapy. In systematic desensitization therapy, patients practice relaxation techniques as they mentally imagine the urge to steal. They use specialized techniques to stop the compulsion to steal during this exercise.

Other techniques psychiatrists may use as part of therapy for kleptomaniacs includes covert sensitization. In this exercise, you imagine yourself stealing, and then imagine all of the negative consequences of being caught. The idea is the fear of being caught in those situations will keep you from stealing in the future.

Lastly, some doctors choose aversion therapy. A negative feeling is paired with the urge to steal. The old-fashioned idea of snapping a rubber band on your wrist every time you feel the urge to smoke is a type of aversion therapy. Kleptomaniacs may use the same technique or something else to pair a negative stimulus with the urge to steal so in the future, they choose to avoid the negative stimulus and avoid stealing.

Help With Stealing Addiction

It may be embarrassing to admit you need help with stealing addiction or kleptomania. Help is available for you from your doctor, a psychiatrist or a mental health facility such as a rehab or recovery center. These centers often see clients with multiple addictions and understand the pain of your stealing addiction. They can help you recover and avoid future situations. With proper treatment, you can be free at last of the guilt and shame of kleptomania.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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