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Kleptomania is a condition that drives people to steal items solely for the sake of stealing them. In most cases, a person with kleptomania will steal things that they could otherwise afford or do not need. There are many incorrect and harmful thoughts about kleptomania, many of which come from assumptions about individuals with the condition. Many studies investigate the causes of kleptomania and have uncovered some surprising information.

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Symptoms

A few symptoms signify that theft might be the result of kleptomania. The primary symptom of the condition is an irresistible urge to steal something. Many people with kleptomania describe a sense of tension or excitement when they feel the impulse. Once they act on the impulse to steal, they typically feel relief or satisfaction. Shortly after the theft, many people with kleptomania have feelings of guilt or shame. The impulse to steal is almost always spontaneous.

kleptomania shoplifting symptoms Михаил Руденко / Getty Images
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Characteristics of Kleptomania

Unlike most shoplifters, individuals with kleptomania are not stealing for personal gain. Because the urge is spontaneous, it rarely involves co-conspirators, and there is no premeditation. Most people with kleptomania steal items from public places, though some steal from family or friends. Usually, the stolen items hold no value for the individual. Because of this, they might stash the items away, give them to others, or secretly return them. The urges often follow a cycle, with the feelings varying in intensity over time.

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Comorbid Disorders

Many psychiatric disorders are comorbid with kleptomania, meaning they occur alongside each other. The most common comorbid disorders include bipolar, anxiety, eating, and other impulse-control disorders. Many studies show links between kleptomania and obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, the two conditions do not seem to appear together very frequently. It is possible the disorders stem from similar causes, though additional research is necessary to confirm this. There is also evidence of links between kleptomania and substance abuse disorders. Each of these conditions shares symptoms such as impulse control, addiction, and harmful rituals.

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Causes

Because kleptomania is comorbid with other disorders, researchers believe there may be a link in their causes. Kleptomania, like other conditions, results from interactions in the brain’s neurotransmitter pathways, along with the opioid, dopamine, and serotonin systems. Low levels of serotonin are common in people with mood disorders and can lead people to more impulsive behaviors. An imbalance in the opioid system could cause similar behavior. Dopamine causes pleasurable feelings. Because stealing causes a release of dopamine, the body may be training itself to want to steal. Researchers are continuing to study these systems to discover the exact causes of kleptomania.

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Frequency

Interestingly, kleptomania is a rare condition. Many people claim to either have the condition or know someone who does, but research shows that individuals with the condition typically don’t reveal the disorder. Meanwhile, shoplifters without the disorder tend to claim that they do have kleptomania. This has potentially affected the reported frequency of kleptomania. Currently, experts believe that only 0.6% of people have kleptomania. Additionally, three times as many women as men receive the diagnosis.

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Seeking Help

Kleptomania is an impulsive disorder and the actions of those with the disorder do not reflect an individual’s ethics or morality. Because of the social stigma, many people with kleptomania never speak to others about their condition. If one does not receive the help he or she needs, the condition may progress, or other disorders may begin to develop. If a person cannot stop stealing, they should seek medical advice. Mental health professionals will do their best to help, and will not report the thefts.

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Possibility of a Spectrum

A 2018 study from the Psychiatria Polska medical journal suggests experts should begin to refer to kleptomania as “kleptomania spectrum.” The authors found that several of their subjects with kleptomania were stealing generally useful items. This would conflict with the typical diagnosis requirement that insists that a person with kleptomania does not steal items that are useful or that they need. The authors believe that, like many disorders, kleptomania exists on a spectrum, and not every case exhibits the same symptoms. This could lead to more individuals falling under the diagnosis for kleptomania and receiving assistance.

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Medications

Typically, the treatment for kleptomania is a combination of psychotherapy and psychopharmacology, meaning counseling and medication. Because kleptomania is similar to other psychiatric disorders, many doctors find success by prescribing similar medications. Most physicians opt to use drugs to increase the uptake of serotonin in the brain, inhibiting impulsive behaviors. Additionally, medications that antagonize opioid receptors have a similar effect.

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Therapies

Counseling has proven incredibly effective in helping people with kleptomania manage their condition. Most therapies focus on dealing with underlying psychological issues that are contributing to the disorder. In some cases, mental health professionals prefer to involve the family in group therapy, so that their patient feels more comfortable. Some individuals may be too embarrassed to speak openly about their condition. In these instances, one-on-one behavior modification therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are the most effective.

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Speaking to Someone with Kleptomania

It can be difficult for friends and family members to address their concerns if they believe someone close to them has kleptomania. It’s important to remember that kleptomania is a condition, not a character flaw. When speaking to a person with the disorder, it is often helpful to emphasize that the condition is treatable and that it may require more than willpower to beat -- in other words, it is not a personal weakness. Talking to a loved one with the condition is hard, but keeping the conversation rooted in concern for their well-being can help ensure they seek the help they need.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.