Kleptomania (klep-toe-MAY-nee-uh) is a mental health disorder that involves repeatedly being unable to resist urges to steal items that you generally don't really need. Often the items stolen have little value and you could afford to buy them. Kleptomania is rare but can be a serious condition. It can cause much emotional pain to you and your loved ones — and even legal problems — if not treated.
Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder — a disorder that involves problems with emotional or behavioral self-control. If you have an impulse control disorder, you have difficulty resisting the temptation or powerful urge 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 medicine or skill-building therapy that focuses on dealing with urges may help to 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 satisfaction 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
People with kleptomania usually have these features or characteristics:
- Unlike most shoplifters, people with kleptomania don't compulsively steal for personal gain, on a dare, for revenge or out of rebellion. They steal simply because the urge is so powerful that they can't resist it.
- Episodes of kleptomania generally happen suddenly, without planning and without help from another person.
- Most people with kleptomania steal from public places, such as stores. 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 also may 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 usually doesn't report your thefts to authorities.
Some people seek medical help because they're afraid they'll get caught and have legal problems. Or they've already been arrested, and they're legally required to seek treatment.
If a loved one has kleptomania
If you suspect a close friend or family member may have kleptomania, gently raise your concerns with that person. Keep in mind that kleptomania is a mental health disorder, not a character flaw, so approach the person without judgment or blame.
It may be helpful to emphasize these points:
- You're concerned because you care about the person'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."
- Treatments are available that may help to minimize the urge to steal and live without addiction and shame.
If you need help preparing for this conversation, talk with your health care provider. Your provider may refer you to a mental health professional who can help you plan a way of raising your concerns without making your friend or relative feel defensive or threatened.
The causes of kleptomania are not known. Several theories suggest that changes in the brain may be at the root of kleptomania, and that learned patterns of stealing items strengthens the problem over time. More research is needed to better understand these possible causes, but kleptomania may be linked to:
- Problems with a naturally occurring brain chemical called serotonin. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, helps regulate moods and emotions. Low levels of serotonin are common in people prone to impulsive behaviors.
- Addictive disorders. Stealing may cause the release of dopamine — another neurotransmitter. Dopamine causes pleasurable feelings, and some people seek this rewarding feeling again and again.
- 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.
- Learned habit. Urges are very uncomfortable. Responding to these urges by stealing causes a temporary decrease in distress and relief from these urges. This creates a strong habit that becomes hard to break.
Kleptomania is not common. But some cases of kleptomania may never be diagnosed. Some people never seek treatment. Other people are jailed after repeated thefts.
Kleptomania often begins during the teen years or in young adulthood, but it can start later. About two-thirds of people with known kleptomania are female.
Kleptomania risk factors may include:
- Family history. Having a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, with kleptomania or addictive disorders may increase the risk of kleptomania.
- Having another mental illness. People with kleptomania often have another mental health disorder, such as anxiety, depression or a substance use disorder.
Left untreated, kleptomania can result in severe emotional, family, work, legal and financial problems. For example, you know stealing is wrong but you feel powerless to resist the impulse. As a result, you may be filled with guilt, shame, self-loathing and humiliation. And you may be arrested for stealing. You may otherwise lead a law-abiding life and be confused and upset by your compulsive stealing.
Other complications and conditions associated with kleptomania may include:
- Other impulse-control disorders, such as compulsive gambling or shopping
- Alcohol or other substance misuse
- Personality disorders
- Eating disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
Because the causes of kleptomania aren'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.