Kleptomania is considered a psychiatric disorder rooted in an uncontrollable desire to steal. It is a misunderstood disorder that does not get very much attention as compared to issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, behavioural addiction, and other psychological disorders including depression, co-dependency, and eating disorders.
Kleptomania is also not a debilitating condition in the same sense as drug abuse or an eating disorder. However, it can be both psychologically disabling and legally challenging. Kleptomaniacs can easily find themselves in trouble with the law at any point their deeds catch up to them. For this reason, the disorder should not be ignored. We treat kleptomania using the latest treatment standards and methods.
Symptoms of Kleptomania
The primary symptom of kleptomania is an uncontrollable desire to steal. It is clearly distinguished from other types of stealing in that those suffering from the disorder do not steal because they need something they cannot afford or they need the money that can be obtained by selling stolen items. In fact, most of the items stolen by kleptomaniacs have very little monetary value. Kleptomania sufferers will usually hoard the items they steal or attempt to surreptitiously return them.
Other symptoms of kleptomania sufferers may recognise include:
- a sudden burst of physical and psychological tension that precedes a stealing attempt
- feelings of pleasure and euphoria experienced during the process of stealing
- strong feelings of guilt, shame and remorse after successfully stealing something
- urges to return stolen items, followed by stealing them again
- irresistible urges to steal spontaneously.
It should be noted that people suffering from genuine kleptomania rarely plan their thefts. They also tend to work alone. A kleptomaniac is not someone who intentionally sets out to steal for the purposes of enriching him or herself. Kleptomania is based on impulse alone.
A troubling aspect of kleptomania is that the urges to steal may peak and subside over the course of time. In other words, a sufferer may go through several weeks or months in which the urge to steal occurs very frequently. That may be followed by an equal amount of time in which the individual rarely experiences his or her urges. It is not a disorder that can always be tracked by consistent and repeat episodes. This can make treatment difficult.
When to Seek help
Anyone who regularly experiences a compulsion to steal even though they have no legitimate reason for doing so should seek out the advice of a medical professional or therapist. Experts say a high percentage of kleptomaniacs do not do so because they are afraid of arrest and prosecution. Rest assured that this is not likely to happen. A clinician who recognises the symptoms of kleptomania will offer treatment rather than reporting the individual to authorities.
You may need to seek professional help even if your urges to steal are not consistent. If you can think back to a set of episodes in your past in which you felt the compulsion to steal that later subsided, you still may be suffering from kleptomania. The condition can be cyclical in nature.
Treatment for kleptomania is divided into two categories: counselling and medication. Both kinds of treatment are necessary in most cases due to the psychological nature of the condition. The following is a brief explanation:
- Individual Counselling – Individual counselling is based on behaviour modification theory that has been successfully applied to other psychological and psychiatric conditions. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is just one example of this kind of counselling. The counselling is designed to help the individual work through his or her issues in order to understand what might trigger the compulsions leading to stealing. Ways to avoid the triggers are then developed.
- Family Counselling – The typical kleptomaniac needs the support of family members to overcome this disorder. Family members are encouraged to learn the same triggers and help their loved one avoid them. Families are also counselled about the psychological nature of kleptomania to resolve the guilt and embarrassment many of them experience.
- Prescription Medications – The preferred medications for treating kleptomania are known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It is believed that increasing serotonin levels in the brain helps by reducing compulsive feelings, thus enabling the kleptomaniac to resist the temptation to steal.
Science does not yet fully understand how kleptomania works or why it tends to target those it does. Therefore, some patients need to try multiple therapies before they find something that works for them. In addition to what we have listed above, several psychotherapeutic treatments may also be offered:
- Covert Sensitisation – This therapy is a role-playing therapy of sorts that encourages patients to imagine an episode of stealing followed by arrest, prosecution and sentencing. The effective use of this treatment may motivate the kleptomaniac to offer more resistance.
- Aversion Therapy – Aversion therapy teaches a kleptomaniac to create some sort of uncomfortable situation for themselves when faced with a compulsion to steal. For example, holding one’s breath for long as possible works for some patients. This uncomfortable condition makes it easier to resist the temptation to steal.
- Relaxation Therapy – This therapy uses relaxation techniques to handle the tension that occurs just before an episode of stealing. It is believed that such techniques can reduce compulsive urges.
Kleptomaniacs may do very well by participating in support group meetings. As with drug and alcohol users, they find mutual encouragement and accountability in the presence of others who are dealing with the same problems. The most important thing to remember is that the kleptomaniac is not alone in his or her struggle. Likewise, it is a condition that is very difficult to overcome without professional help and mutual support.
Concerned about a Loved One?
If you are concerned that a loved one might be suffering from kleptomania, it is understandable that you would want to help. Please understand that you cannot force an end to the behaviour no matter how hard you try. What you can do is:
- Express your concern for your loved one’s health and well-being
- Communicate the risks of compulsive stealing (e.g., arrest, losing a job, etc.)
- Show compassion for your loved one rather than telling him or her to ‘just stop’
- Encourage your loved one to seek professional treatment.
If you need help figuring out how to have a conversation with your loved one, a professional counsellor can help. Any conversation you do have should be one that is not accusatory or controlled by anger or bitterness. Kleptomaniacs are not criminals in the sense that they deliberately steal without regard to the harm it causes to others. They suffer from a psychiatric disorder that needs to be treated.
Kleptomaniacs are not criminals in the sense that they deliberately steal without regard to the harm it causes to others. They suffer from a psychiatric disorder that needs to be treated.