Kleptomania (klep-toe-MAY-nee-uh) is the recurrent failure to resist urges to steal items that you generally don't really need and that usually have little value. Kleptomania is a serious mental health disorder that can cause much emotional pain to you and your loved ones if not treated.

Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder — a disorder that's characterized by problems with emotional or behavioral self-control. If you have an impulse control disorder, you have difficulty resisting the temptation or drive to perform an act that's excessive or harmful to you or someone else.

Many people with kleptomania live lives of secret shame because they're afraid to seek mental health treatment. Although there's no cure for kleptomania, treatment with medication or psychotherapy may be able to help end the cycle of compulsive stealing.

Kleptomania symptoms may include:

  • Inability to resist powerful urges to steal items that you don't need
  • Feeling increased tension, anxiety or arousal leading up to the theft
  • Feeling pleasure, relief or gratification while stealing
  • Feeling terrible guilt, remorse, self-loathing, shame or fear of arrest after the theft
  • Return of the urges and a repetition of the kleptomania cycle

Features

People with kleptomania typically exhibit these features or characteristics:

  • Unlike typical shoplifters, people with kleptomania don't compulsively steal for personal gain, on a dare or out of rebellion. They steal simply because the urge is so powerful that they can't resist it.
  • Episodes of kleptomania generally occur spontaneously, usually without planning and without help or collaboration from another person.
  • Most people with kleptomania steal from public places, such as stores and supermarkets. Some may steal from friends or acquaintances, such as at a party.
  • Often, the stolen items have no value to the person with kleptomania, and the person can afford to buy them.
  • The stolen items are usually stashed away, never to be used. Items may also be donated, given away to family or friends, or even secretly returned to the place from which they were stolen.
  • Urges to steal may come and go or may occur with greater or lesser intensity over the course of time.

When to see a doctor

If you can't stop shoplifting or stealing, seek medical advice. Many people who may have kleptomania don't want to seek treatment because they're afraid they'll be arrested or jailed. However, a mental health provider typically doesn't report your thefts to authorities.

Some people seek medical help because they're afraid they'll get caught and have legal consequences. Or they've already been arrested, and they're legally required to seek treatment.

Getting treatment may help you gain control over your kleptomania.

If a loved one has kleptomania

If you suspect a close friend or family member may have kleptomania, gently raise your concerns with your loved one. Keep in mind that kleptomania is a mental health condition, not a character flaw, and approach your loved one without blame or accusation.

It may be helpful to emphasize these points:

  • You're concerned because you care about your loved one's health and well-being.
  • You're worried about the risks of compulsive stealing, such as being arrested, losing a job or damaging a valued relationship.
  • You understand that, with kleptomania, the urge to steal may be too strong to resist just by "putting your mind to it."
  • Effective treatments are available to minimize the urge to steal and help your loved one live without addiction and shame.

If you need help preparing for this conversation, talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you to a mental health provider who can help you plan a way of raising your concerns without making your loved one feel defensive or threatened.

The cause of kleptomania isn't known. Several theories that suggest that changes in the brain may be at the root of kleptomania. More research is needed to better understand these possible causes, but kleptomania may be:

  • Linked to problems with a naturally occurring brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate moods and emotions. Low levels of serotonin are common in people prone to impulsive behaviors.
  • Related to addictive disorders, and stealing may cause the release of dopamine (another neurotransmitter). Dopamine causes pleasurable feelings, and some people seek this rewarding feeling again and again.
  • Linked to the brain's opioid system. Urges are regulated by the brain's opioid system. An imbalance in this system could make it harder to resist urges.

Kleptomania is considered uncommon. However because many people with kleptomania never seek treatment, or they're simply jailed after repeated thefts, many cases of kleptomania may never be diagnosed. Kleptomania often begins during the teen years or in young adulthood, but in rare cases it begins in later adulthood.

Kleptomania risk factors may include:

  • Family history. Having a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with kleptomania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a substance or alcohol use problem may increase your risk of kleptomania.
  • Being female. About two-thirds of people with known kleptomania are women.
  • Having another mental illness. People with kleptomania often have another mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, an eating disorder, substance use disorder or a personality disorder.
  • Head trauma or brain injuries. People who've experienced a head trauma may develop kleptomania.

Left untreated, kleptomania can result in severe emotional, family, legal, work and financial problems. For example, you know stealing is wrong but you feel powerless to resist the impulse, so you may be wracked by guilt, shame, self-loathing and humiliation. You may otherwise lead a moral, upstanding life and be confused and upset by your compulsive stealing.

Examples of complications that kleptomania may cause or be associated with include:

  • Compulsive gambling or shopping
  • Arrest for shoplifting
  • Imprisonment
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

If you struggle with an irresistible urge to steal, call your doctor. Making that call will undoubtedly be scary, but trust that your doctor is interested in caring for your health, not in judging you. Your doctor may refer you to a mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist, with experience diagnosing and treating kleptomania.

Here's some information to help you get ready and know what to expect from your doctor or mental health provider.

What you can do:

To prepare for your appointment, make a list of:

  • Any symptoms you're experiencing, and for how long
  • Key personal information, including traumatic events in your past and any current, major stressors
  • Your medical information, including other physical or mental health conditions with which you've been diagnosed
  • All medications you're taking, including any vitamins or other supplements, and the dosages
  • Questions to ask your mental health provider so that you can make the most of your appointment

Take a trusted family member or friend along, if possible to help remember the details. In addition, someone who has known you for a long time may be able to ask questions or share information with the mental health provider that you don't remember to bring up.

For kleptomania, some questions to ask your mental health provider include:

  • Why can't I stop stealing?
  • What treatments are available?
  • What treatments are most likely to work for me?
  • How quickly might I stop stealing?
  • Will I still feel the urge to steal?
  • How often do I need therapy sessions and for how long?
  • Would family therapy be helpful in my case?
  • Are there medications that can help?
  • What are the possible side effects of these medications?
  • I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage these conditions together?
  • Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can have? What websites do you recommend?

What to expect from your mental health provider

To better understand your symptoms and how they're affecting your life, your mental health provider may ask:

  • At what age did you first experience an irresistible urge to steal?
  • How often do you experience the urge to steal?
  • Have you ever been caught or arrested for stealing?
  • How would you describe your feelings before, during and after you steal something?
  • What kinds of items do you steal? Are they things you need?
  • From whom do you steal?
  • What do you do with the items you steal?
  • Does anything in particular seem to trigger your urge to steal?
  • How is your urge to steal affecting your life, including school, work and personal relationships?
  • Have any of your close relatives had a problem with compulsive stealing or with 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?

When you decide to seek treatment for symptoms of possible kleptomania, you may have both a physical and psychological evaluation. The physical exam can determine if there may be any medical causes triggering your symptoms.

Kleptomania is diagnosed based on your signs and symptoms. Because it's a type of impulse control disorder, to help pinpoint a diagnosis, your doctor may:

  • Ask questions about your impulses and how they make you feel
  • Review a list of situations to ask if these situations trigger your kleptomania episodes
  • Have you fill out psychological questionnaires or self-assessments

Many experts use the criteria 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

Although fear, humiliation or embarrassment may make it hard for you to seek treatment for kleptomania, it's important to get help. Kleptomania is difficult to overcome on your own. Without treatment, kleptomania can be an ongoing, long-term condition.

Treatment of kleptomania typically involves medications and psychotherapy, sometimes along with self-help groups. However, there's no standard kleptomania treatment, and researchers are still trying to understand what may work best. You may have to try several types of treatment to find something that works well for you.

Medications

There's little scientific research about using psychiatric medications to treat kleptomania. And there is no FDA-approved medication for kleptomania. However, certain medications may help, depending on your situation and whether you have other mental disorders, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Your doctor may consider prescribing an antidepressant, specifically a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). An addiction medication called an opioid antagonist may reduce the urges and pleasure associated with stealing. Other medications may be considered as well.

If medication is prescribed, ask your doctor, mental health provider or pharmacist about potential side effects or possible interactions with any other medications.

Psychotherapy

A form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy helps you identify unhealthy, negative beliefs and behaviors and replace them with healthy, positive ones. Cognitive behavioral therapy may include these techniques to help you overcome kleptomania urges:

  • Covert sensitization, in which you picture yourself stealing and then facing negative consequences, such as being caught
  • Aversion therapy, in which you practice mildly painful techniques, such as holding your breath until you become uncomfortable, when you get an urge to steal
  • Systematic desensitization, in which you practice relaxation techniques and picture yourself controlling urges to steal

Avoiding relapses

It's not unusual to have relapses of kleptomania. To help avoid relapses, be sure to stick to your treatment plan. If you feel urges to steal, contact your mental health provider or reach out to a trusted person or support group.

You can take steps to care for yourself with healthy coping skills while getting professional treatment:

  • Stick to your treatment plan. Take medications as directed and attend scheduled therapy sessions. Remember, it's hard work and you may have occasional setbacks.
  • Educate yourself. Learn about kleptomania so that you can better understand risk factors, treatments and triggering events.
  • Discover what drives you. Identify situations, thoughts and feelings that may trigger urges to steal so you can take steps to manage them.
  • Get treatment for substance abuse or other mental health problems. Your addictions, depression, anxiety and stress can feed off each other, leading to a cycle of unhealthy behavior.
  • Find healthy outlets. Explore healthy ways to rechannel your urges to steal or shoplift through exercise and recreational activities.
  • Learn relaxation and stress management. Try such stress-reduction techniques as meditation, yoga or tai chi.
  • Stay focused on your goal. Recovery from kleptomania can take time. Keep motivated by keeping your recovery goals in mind and reminding yourself that you can work to repair damaged relationships and financial and legal problems.

Support for loved ones

If your loved one is being treated for kleptomania, make sure you understand the details of his or her treatment plan and actively support its success. It may be helpful to attend one or more therapy sessions with your loved one so that you're familiar with the factors that seem to trigger the urge to steal and the most effective ways to cope.

You may also benefit from talking with a therapist yourself. Recovering from an impulse control disorder is a challenging, long-term undertaking — both for the affected person and those closest to him or her. Make sure you're taking care of your own needs with the stress-reduction outlets that work best for you, such as exercise, meditation or time with friends.

Self-help groups

People with kleptomania may benefit from participating in self-help groups based on 12-step programs. Even if you can't find a group specifically for kleptomania, you may benefit from attending Alcoholics Anonymous or other addiction meetings. Such groups don't suit everyone's tastes, so ask your mental health provider about alternatives.

Because the cause of kleptomania isn't clear, it's not yet known how to prevent it with any certainty. Getting treatment as soon as compulsive stealing begins may help prevent kleptomania from becoming worse and prevent some of the negative consequences.

Nov. 11, 2014