Do you have intense urges to steal items you don’t need? Do you feel a great sense of relief after stealing? Have you lost friendships, jobs or other important aspects of your life because of stealing? Whether you been keeping this secret for a long time or have been caught multiple times for stealing, living with kleptomania, compulsive urges to steal, can feel very lonely and embarrassing. You may not know who to reach out to or how to even explain what you are feeling. Help is out there waiting for you.
Kleptomania is also known as “compulsive stealing.”
A person with kleptomania feels an uncontrollable urge to steal. They get pleasure from stealing but do not steal out of necessity or for malicious intent. They often feel extreme shame after stealing, but cannot control their urges to steal.
Kleptomania is classified under the Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- 5th Edition (DSM- 5)*. These disorders all involve problems with controlling emotions or behaviors.
*The DSM-5 is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association which provides detailed diagnostic criteria and information on mental health disorders.
Impulse control is the ability to control urges to engage in a behavior or delay immediate gratification.
An impulse control disorder is repeatedly being unable to resist urges or temptations despite the harmful or negative consequences the behavior may bring.
Kleptomania is very rare, however, according to the DSM-5, it occurs in approximately 0.3-0.6% of the general population. Women are more likely to suffer from this condition and outnumber men 3 to 1.
The exact cause of kleptomania is unknown. However, there are several factors that may play a part in the development of kleptomania:
Current research has also found that people with kleptomania shared common life experiences:
Someone with kleptomania will engage in multiple incidents of stealing. They steal impulsively, without planning ahead and do so for the sole purpose of relieving stress or gaining pleasure. They feel an intense urge to steal and will disregard any consequences. Their behavior is not due to other mental health conditions or substance use.
A person with kleptomania may constantly be getting into trouble for stealing. They feel intense urges to steal and cannot stop themselves from taking things they do not need. They usually experience extreme shame afterward. This shame may lead them to spend a lot of time alone and avoid social situations. They may have difficulty keeping friendships because of their behavior. People around them may feel distrust toward them for their multiple incidents of stealing and may not understand why they just “can’t stop it.”
They may store the items they stole, throw them away or give them away to others to avoid getting in trouble or to feel better about stealing. They may have a history of depression and suicidal behavior. They may be suffering from other mental health conditions that further alienates from those around them. A person with kleptomania may desperately want help but may be too embarrassed to know who to ask.
To be diagnosed with kleptomania, your therapist will complete an evaluation to see if you meet the following diagnostic DSM-5 criteria:
A. Recurrent failure to resist impulses to steal objects that are not needed for personal use or for their monetary value.
B. Increasing sense of tension immediately before the theft.
C. Pleasure, gratification, or relief at the time of committing the theft.
D. The stealing is not committed to express anger or vengeance and is not in response to a delusion or hallucination.
F. The stealing is not better explained by conduct disorder, a manic episode, or antisocial personality disorder.
People with kleptomania often also suffer from other mental health disorders simultaneously. It is very common for a person with kleptomania to be too ashamed to seek for their stealing behavior, therefore they often seek help for their other mental health conditions first.
Kleptomania is different from regular stealing or other crimes. A person suffering from kleptomania does not steal things that they need and often does not plan to commit the crime. They do so because they feel of an intense, uncontrollable and often, unexplainable urge to steal. Their motivation is strictly relief of internal tension and gratification. They do not have malicious intent when stealing.
When a person engages in theft, not related to kleptomania, the person takes things for personal gain. The person may be stealing out of necessity, revenge, or another external motivation.
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes people to experience fluctuations between depression and mania. It is common that people who suffer from kleptomania may also suffer from bipolar disorder, both sharing the trait of high impulsivity, however, they are not mutually inclusive. Research is still needed in this area, but some believe that the chemical imbalances present in kleptomania and bipolar disorder may be similar.
Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed when a person is 18 years old or older. It is diagnosed when a person demonstrates a pattern of disregard for others and engages in behaviors that negatively affect others without remorse.
People with Antisocial Personality Disorder tend to engage in impulsive behaviors and may engage in stealing, however, their motivation may be malicious or for personal gain.
Kleptomania is at often diagnosed in conjunction with other mental health disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorders, depression, gambling disorder and other impulse-control and disruptive conduct disorders.
It is rare for children to be diagnosed with kleptomania, however, the exact onset of kleptomania varies and can happen at any time in a person’s life. Most often, people begin to show symptoms during adolescence. In some rare cases, some people have developed symptoms is late adulthood.
Ally is 20 years old and is currently facing jail for being caught stealing for the third time. She has already lost many friends who no longer trust her and she has not been able to figure out what is going on with her. She has been feeling an intense urge to steal for some time. She does not know why, but for the past 4 years, she began to feel great relief when stealing.
Her first time stealing was during a trip to the grocery store when was feeling extremely stressed and sad over her family problems. She impulsively grabbed a pack of batteries and walked out without paying. She felt a great sense of relief as she was doing it and felt a sense of peace for the first time in weeks. She did not need them and felt very guilty as soon as she was in her car, but she had not been able to stop herself. She threw the pack of batteries away as soon as she got home and felt very embarrassed for giving in to her urge.
Ally began relieving her stress by stealing every few weeks. Each time she stole something she felt horrible as it was always something she considered to be “ridiculous and unnecessary.”
Kleptomania presents a huge risk to a person’s quality of life. The person faces possible criminal charges, alienation from family and friends and increased exposure to extreme stressors. Therefore, it is very important that you get help as soon as you start to notice strong, uncontrollable urges to steal. Therapy will be an extremely important part of managing your symptoms.
Research has found that people with kleptomania shared common life experiences:
It is important to remember that people who are struggling with kleptomania experience great shame after stealing, especially when repeatedly caught. This can lead to thoughts of suicide and self-harm. It is important to talk to professional if you notice that you or your loved one are experiencing these complications.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) appears to be effective in treating kleptomania. CBT helps you recognize feelings, thoughts and behaviors leading you to act out in this way. A technique called covert sensitization is especially helpful. This is where a person imagines themselves stealing and then imagines getting caught and going through the negative consequence.
Mindfulness and relaxation skills will be an important part of treatment as well in order to help you identify coping skills that will allow you to relieve stress or get satisfaction in healthier ways.
Family sessions help your support system understand how to best help you manage your urges and safety plan.
An important thing to remember is that your therapist is going to respect your confidentiality and you do not need to be afraid of them reporting you for stealing. You can openly talk about your urges and seek the help you need.
If treatment alone is not proving effective, your LMHP may recommend you also see a doctor for psychotropic medication. Doctors may prescribe medication to address symptoms caused by co-occurring disorders to best manage your urges for stealing. Some people have seen improvement with the use of antidepressants and mood stabilizers.
Naltrexone, a medication usually used to help people who have been addicted to certain types of drugs, has been used to help people with kleptomania. It is believed that this medication is helpful in decreasing urges to steal.
Professional treatment for kleptomania is very important in order to decrease the risk of lifelong consequences such as criminal charges, broken relationships, and an overall lower quality of life. However, there are things that you can do at home that will support your treatment and make it more effective:
Seeking help is incredibly important in getting the necessary help to fight urges and make positive changes in your life. There are support groups and treatment providers available to help you. You are not alone! It is important to seek support so that you do not suffer in silence and risk life-long consequences. Getting the appropriate care will help you achieve your best life.
Kleptomania is a billable diagnosis and most insurance providers should cover mental health treatment costs. Call your insurance provider to get specifics on your coverage.
You want to find someone with experience in cognitive behavioral treatment, behavior modification, and impulse control disorders. Call the numbers at the end of this article for resources in your area.
Titles for licensed mental health professionals (LMHP) may vary depending on their field of study or where they practice. Some examples are:
Cost of treatment will vary depending on the provider’s area of expertise.
There is no specific national helpline for kleptomania, but there are many support groups online that you can go to for help. It is important to consider that some of the online support groups are not run by professionals, therefore you must be careful about what advice you take.
Here are some resources that can help you find support groups in your area:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: Provides information on mental health disorders and referrals to local providers. Live person available M-F from 10am-6pm EST.
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: Provides general information on mental health and helps you locate treatment services in your area. Speak to a live person M-F 8am-8pm EST
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24-hour toll-free crisis hotline to help connect you to a local crisis center that can help you seek help in your area.
Texting available: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/
Kleptomania does not have to ruin your life. It is possible to get help and to learn how to handle your urges and get the necessary support. You are not alone! Do not let the shame and confusion caused by kleptomania stop you from showing the world all of your greatness.
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