Kleptomania

1 What is Kleptomania?

Kleptomania is a mental disorder in which you have strong urges to steal items that are of little value to you. The urges are so strong that you lose control over yourself and you end up stealing the items. If left untreated, the condition can cause serious emotional harm to yourself and the people around you. It is a type of impulse control disorder in which you do not have control over your emotions or behaviors. If you suffer from impulse control disorder, you may be unable to curb your desire to steal that might lead to situations, harmful to you or someone else. Many people with kleptomania have a fear of being exposed and hence do not seek medical attention. No cure for kleptomania has yet been found but medications or psychotherapy are helpful in reducing unreasonable desire to steal. 

2 Symptoms

The symptoms of Kleptomania are:

  • Strong often uncontrollable urges to steal items that are of little value to you.
  • Feeling stressed, anxious or excited when you are not able to steal
  • You feel relieved, happy and satisfied while stealing
  • After stealing something, you feel burdened by feeling of guilt, remorse, shame or fear of arrest

Kleptomania runs in cycle and once the fears after stealing are over, the urges resume.

Here are some features or characteristics that are typical of Kleptomania:

  • People with kleptomania have irresistible urges to steal which are not directed towards personal gain. Stealing gives them a way out to release anxiety and feel pleasure.
  • Kleptomaniacs do not plan to steal. They are driven by a spontaneous urge, which is out of their control.
  • Kleptomaniacs hunt public places, such as stores and supermarkets to steal or steal items from friends or acquaintances. Commonly, the stolen items are little value to them.
  • As the urge is spontaneous, it may be “on” and “off” or “low” and “high”.

When to see a Doctor

Consult your doctor if you cannot resist the urge to steal and you end up stealing items. The fear of getting arrested or shame can put many kleptomaniacs from asking for medical help. Remember that your mental health provider can be generous enough not to report such case to authorities. Conversely, some people may come out to ask for help due to fear of getting arrested. In some cases, people who have already been arrested are legally required to seek treatment. Treatments can help you or your loved one resist the urges to steal. In an unfortunate event of having a case of kleptomania in your family or surrounding, show your concern over the matter. But remember that kleptomania is a disease of mind that has nothing to do with character of an individual. While talking to your loved ones, make sure you don’t blame them for whatever has happened. We have worked out some simple strategies to help you better handle this awkward situation:

  • Convince your loved ones that your concerns are reasonable and aimed to save them from potential risks of compulsive stealing, such as being arrested, getting fired from a job or damaging a relationship.
  • Show your care and empathy to the affected ones to help them guide through this awkward and potentially image tarnishing condition. Tell them that available treatments can control the symptoms.
  • Talk to your doctor to get ideas on how to converse with your loved ones. He or she may refer you to a mental health provider who can devise an effective intervention program that does not emotionally hurt your loved ones.
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3 Causes

No one knows what exactly causes kleptomania. Various theories have tried to reveal the cause, which suggest that brain abnormalities could lead to these symptoms.

Some possible causes are:

  • Problems with a chemical messenger in the brain (neurotransmitter) called serotonin: The low levels of this mood and emotion controlling chemical may lead to impulsive behaviors.
  • Tendency to get pleasure from stealing: Stealing becomes an addiction as it causes release of another neurotransmitter called dopamine which gives pleasurable feelings, and rewards you.
  • Imbalance in brain's opioid system: Any problems in the brain's opioid system, which controls pain, reward and addictive behaviors could make the urges uncontrollable.

4 Making a Diagnosis

Kleptomania is diagnosed based on your signs and symptoms.

Visit your doctor if the urges are causing you problems. You may feel scared to call your doctor but have faith in your doctor that s/he is not judgmental of your illness and is ready to help you come out clean. You may be referred to an experienced psychiatrist. Prepare yourself to express yourself.

How to prepare yourself for the visit?

List out all the symptoms.

Write down your key medical information.

Get accompanied by your family member or friend while visiting your doctor.

Write down the names of all your medications, vitamins or supplements.

Make a list of the questions to ask your doctor. Some typical questions can be:

  • Why can't I resist the urge to steal?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • When will I stop stealing?
  • How long will the therapy sessions go?
  • Can my family help me?
  • Are there any medications that can help?
  • What are the possible side effects of these medications?
  • What your mental health provider wants to know?

A clear talk with your doctor can optimize the therapy and improve the outcomes. Prepare yourself to answer some essential questions from your doctor. Your doctor might ask you typical questions like:

  • How old were you when you first experienced such irresistible urge to steal?
  • Do the urges occur regularly?
  • Have you ever been caught or arrested for stealing?
  • How are the feelings before, during and after you steal something?
  • What kinds of items do you steal? Do you need them?
  • Where do you steal from?
  • What do you do with the items you steal?
  • Is there anything that triggers your urge to steal?
  • Has your life been affected by this condition and to what extent?
  • Do you have a family history of compulsive stealing or other mental health conditions such as depression, addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder?
  • Have you been treated for any other mental health problems, such as eating disorders? If yes, what treatments were most effective?
  • Do you use alcohol or illegal drugs? How often?
  • Are you currently being treated for any other medical conditions?

The diagnosis proceeds further with a physical and psychological evaluation. Physical examination is done to identify any medical conditions that might trigger your symptoms. Kleptomania diagnosis is largely based on your signs and symptoms. Your doctor may:

  • Ask various questions related to your urges and how they make you feel.
  • Ask about any situation that triggers your kleptomania episodes.
  • Take assessments or ask you to fill psychological questionnaires.

Majority of experts use the criteria mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose mental conditions. This manual is also used by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment. DSM-5 criteria for kleptomania include these features:

  • You have a recurrent inability to resist urges to steal objects that aren't needed for personal use or monetary value.
  • You feel increasing tension immediately before committing the theft.
  • You have 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 a conduct disorder, a manic episode of bipolar disorder or antisocial personality disorder.

5 Treatment

While medications and psychotherapy are two major treatment approaches, no standard kleptomania treatment has been developed yet.

If you have kleptomania, seek immediate help even though feelings of shame or humiliation can make you think of running away. Note that you alone may not be strong enough to overcome the situation and you need help. If not treated timely, it can be a chronic condition and increase your risk of other complications. The treatment often employs hit and trial approach to determine what works for you and what does not.

  • Medications: FDA has not yet approved any medication for kleptomania and only a few studies have shed light on whether psychiatric medicines are useful. Depression treating drug called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) could be useful in some cases. Likewise, an agent used in the treatment of opioid addiction is also prescribed sometimes.
  • Psychotherapy Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches you ways to identify the problems and replace them with better healthy options. CBT techniques for kleptomania can include:
  1. Covert sensitization: This involves an imaginary projection of yourself getting caught after stealing which may in reality prevent you from indulging in such acts.
  2. Aversion therapy: This therapy involves simple techniques such as holding your breath to suppress the urge to steal.
  3. Systematic desensitization: It involves relaxation techniques and imaginary projections where you are able to control the urges to steal.
  • Avoiding relapses: Relapses are common and strictly continuing the treatment plan is the key to prevent the relapse.

6 Prevention

There are no preventive measures to avoid incidence of kleptomania. Prompt treatment and relapse prevention are the keys to avoid complications.

7 Lifestyle and Coping

Living with kleptomania is difficult and often embarrassing, but you may follow these suggestions to better cope with the symptoms of kleptomania:

  • Adhere to the treatment plan: Take medications as directed and don’t miss scheduled therapy sessions.
  • Educate yourself: Acquire and update your knowledge about your condition.
  • Identify the triggers: Remember the factors that trigger your urges and manage them accordingly.
  • Resolve issues like substance abuse or other mental health problems: Addictions and mental health problems can trigger your urges to steal. Or kleptomania can cause these mental problems.
  • Replace urges with healthy options: You may replace the urges to steal with other healthy options like exercise, yoga or meditation.
  • Don’t lose the sight of your goal: Remember that the way to healthy you is long which can test your patience. Stay motivated to reach your goal.
  • Support for loved ones: Show full support to your loved one who is being treated for kleptomania. You may accompany him/her during therapy sessions to learn more about how you can help.

Recovery from kleptomania or any other mental disorder is a long process. It can be challenging to both the affected person and the family. Focus on opting for healthy substitutes to the urges, such as exercise, meditation or time with friends. You may join a self-help group to benefit from various programs designed especially for people like you. If you are alcoholic or use drugs, you may consider joining addition programs after consulting with your mental health provider.

8 Risks and Complications

There are several risks and complications associated with kleptomania.

Many people with kleptomania never ask for help probably due to associated feelings of guilt or embarrassment. Quite often, kleptomaniacs can be jailed on charges of theft. The onset of this disorder is teen or young adulthood, but rarely some cases start in later adulthood.

Risks

  • Family history: Family history of kleptomania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a substance or alcohol use problem can put you at a greater risk of kleptomania.
  • Being female: Kleptomania is common among females. Women constitute approximately 60% of the reported cases.
  • Coexistence of other mental illness: Kleptomania often coexists with other mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, an eating disorder, substance use disorder or a personality disorder.
  • Traumatic brain injuries: People with head trauma are more likely to develop kleptomania.

Complications

You may encounter various emotional, family, legal, work and financial problems with kleptomania. For instance, your identity of an honest, moral and disciplined individual gets destroyed by feelings of guilt, shame and humiliation. The complications of kleptomania are:

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