Stealing (Kleptomania)

Background

Kleptomania is an old term. It has been around since the 1800s, to describe an even older behaviour or Happening. Stealing is illogical and hasty. It is the excitement as opposed to the value of the object that drives the stealing behaviour. Often there is a deep shame, guilt around the behaviour, people struggle to share with others due to embarrassment.

 

How common is it?

It is a rare mental health condition. Thought to affect about 1 in every 200 people. Generally women, typically older are more likely to present with kleptomania.

 

What conditions are this associated with?

Psychologists think of Kleptomania as being associated with poor urge control. There are some conditions researchers notes overlap in presentations with

  1. Bulimia Nervosa
  2. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  3. Anxiety
  4. Gambling
  5. Substance use

When you do an assessment, your psychologist or psychiatrist might ask you about your family history. Sometimes it is impulse control difficulties that run in families. These behaviours can come in different family members such as gambling, eating disorders or stealing. 

Psychology of Kleptomania

People with Kleptomania often feel a deep sense of shame and guilt after the incident. A stealing episode is often preceded by recurrent impulses to steal and a build-up of tension if impulses are resisted. Before the stealing attempt, there is a sense of arousal. There is a momentary release of tension by the act of stealing but the deep sense of shame and guilt stays after. 

Experts propose that kleptomania relates to trauma, in the particular loss. It may be a hidden or poorly aware means to correct for that loss. Take for instance a child who lost their father who was a baker. That child might grow up to develop a behavioural addiction towards stealing bread, pies and cafeteria food. Often people with this steal the same types of items. They could be dressers, shoes or food items. 

 

Diagnosing Kleptomania

Assessments for Stealing usually come about as part of a forensic or police investigation. Or the person with the condition, often after holding back years of shame seeks help. Sometimes it’s because the person has come in for help regarding another matter. 

Psychiatrist or psychologists usually want to clarify the following before making a diagnosis.  

  1. Presence of tension just prior to the stealing incident
  2. A sense of relief or a release of that tension immediately after the act. 
  3. Normal urges to steal something you don’t need. 
  4. There is a sense of shame, guilt or anxiety between the episodes of stealing.
  5. There is no anger or vengeance that is driving the behaviour. 
  6. That the behaviour is in no way related to another mental illness or can explain by another mental illness. For example; conduct disorder or a manic episode. 

As a further part of the assessment, it is likely that details of the stealing will need to be clarified. For instance, 1) how often, 2) types of items 3) what is done to the items after stealing.

Also, we need to explore the attempts to stop the urge to steal. For instance, need to clarify about not wanting to go into shops. Or staying away from visiting people’s houses. 

Generally, we need a vast psychological investigation and formulation, or understanding of the person. It is key to understand any shortcomings in parents, past traumas, conflict resolution skills and personality traits. 

 

Treatments

There are no clearly defined or well-accepted treatment guides for Kleptomania. Rather it is a matter of understanding the person in context and addressing the various factors.

Often impulse control strategies, personality vulnerabilities and other co-occurring mental illnesses are treated in parallel. Various psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), desensitization, aversion therapy can be used.

In some instances, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used. Medications like fluoxetine and sertraline, both of which are SSRIs and available as generic medication can be used to limit impulsivity. 

At Epsychiatry our professional psychologists and psychiatrists are available to help. Stealing benefits from expert involvement, firstly to understand what is going on and then to better manage the issue. Contact our admin support team to organize an appointment.