Kleptomania is an old term, one that has been around since the 1800s, to describe an even older behaviour or occurrence. Stealing is viewed as illogical and impulsive, 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.
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 or be diagnosed with kleptomania.
Psychologists think of Kleptomania as being associated with poor impulse control. There are some conditions researchers have noted an overlap in presentations with 1) Bulimia Nervosa 2) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder 3) Anxiety 4) Gambling 5) Substance use.
When an assessment is being done, your psychologist or psychiatrist might be interested in asking 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 kleptomania.
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. Prior to 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 lingers after.
Experts have proposed that kleptomania may be related to trauma, in the particular loss. It may be a subconscious 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 kleptomania repeatedly steal the same types of items. They could be dressers, shoes or food items.
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 would want to clarify the following before making a diagnosis. The points listed below form part of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria for kleptomania.
- Presence of tension just prior to the stealing incident
- A sense of gratification or a release of that tension immediately after the act.
- Recurrent urges to steal that are not needed for personal or communal use, not to be sold to benefit monetarily.
- There is a sense of shame, guilt or anxiety between the episodes of stealing.
- There is no anger or vengeance that is driving the behaviour.
- That the behaviour is in no way related to another mental illness or could be better explained by another mental illness. For example; conduct disorder or a manic episode. Exploration for other instances of a broader rule violation or symptoms of a bipolar illness is done.
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.
Attempts to resist the urge to steal also need to be explored. For instance not wanting to go into shops. Or staying away from visiting people’s houses needs to be clarified.
Generally, an extensive psychological investigation and formulation, or understanding of the person are needed. It is key to understand any shortcomings in parents, past traumas, conflict resolution skills and personality traits.
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.