When Stealing Is a Compulsion, Not a Choice

“A kleptomaniac is a person who helps himself because he can’t help himself.” ~ Henry Morgan

Although kleptomania is a relatively rare mental illness–affecting 6 in 1000 or 1.2 million Americans–you have likely heard someone referred to as a “klepto.”  An example of a public figure, who is thought to struggle with kleptomania, is Winona Ryder, one of the lead actresses from Stranger Things. She was caught stealing over $5,000 worth of designer clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue in 2001.

Kleptomania is a mental health disorder summarized as the recurrent inability to resist urges to steal. Very rarely do kleptomaniacs steal items of great worth; more often than not, they steal items that they do not need, that they could afford to buy, and that have little to no monetary value…like a keychain.  People affected by kleptomania do not 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 cannot resist it. Such episodes nearly always occur spontaneously, with little to no premeditation or forethought. Kleptomaniacs tend to steal from public places like stores and supermarkets. Some may even steal from friends or acquaintances. The stolen items are either stashed away, never to be used, or potentially donated, given away to family or friends, or even secretly returned to the place from which they were stolen. Kleptomania can cause much emotional pain to you and your loved ones if not treated.

Kleptomania vs. Stealing

Kleptomania is different from flat-out stealing. Ordinary theft (regardless of whether it is planned or impulsive) is deliberate and motivated by the usefulness of an object or its monetary worth. Kleptomania, on the other hand, is the recurring impulse to steal items even though said items are not needed for personal use or monetary value. Often a sense of entitlement comes with stealing, a feeling of “I deserve this”. Stealing is driven by need or want; kleptomania is a compulsion. 

Causes

The causes of kleptomania are unknown. Some scientists believe that kleptomania is part of an alcohol or substance addiction. Some think it is due to an imbalance of the brain chemical, serotonin–which helps regulate mood and emotions (low levels of serotonin are common in people prone to impulsive behaviors). Others consider it to be a deviation of an impulse control disorder like eating disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Although, in theory, anyone can have kleptomania, it seems its onset generally occurs in late adolescence or early adulthood among women. 

Symptoms

Signs of kleptomania are commonly misdiagnosed as everyday theft, but there are a few telltale symptoms and signs that accompany clinical kleptomania, such as the following:

  • Stress
  • Thoughts of intrusion
  • Powerful urges to steal items not needed
  • Inability to resist the compulsion to steal
  • Feeling pleasure, relief or gratification while stealing
  • Release of pressure following the theft
  • 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

Effects

Aside from the emotional turmoil that would accompany dealing with the previously listed symptoms, the physical and social effects can include arrest, incarceration, being labeled a thief, developing substance abuse problems, being ostracised from loved ones, losing a job, having poor self-image, and even incurring a criminal record. Additionally, if left untreated, kleptomania can lead to other impulse-control disorders, alcohol/substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.

Kleptomania comes with a great deal of shame and guilt, as well as the potential for serious legal consequences. Uncontrollable stealing can prevent anyone battling kleptomania from living a productive life. This mood disorder is destructive to both the kleptomaniac and their loved ones, but the good news is that help is available. Although it cannot be cured, kleptomania can be managed with a combination of pharmaceutical and behavioral treatments. I am available to offer professional support to help you or your loved one live a fulfilling life, free from the grips of kleptomania. Please do not hesitate to contact me to today. Help is one click or call away!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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