Have you ever been in the checkout area of a grocery store and your eyes glance over to the stacks of candy and gum and you wonder to yourself, “Would anyone notice if I took one?” Thoughts like these are common and natural; while many people can quiet them in their minds after considering the consequences of getting caught, between 23.1 and 46.2 million people around the world are unable to resist these overwhelming impulses. Such individuals suffer from kleptomania, a type of disruptive behavior disorder characterized by compulsive stealing of items. It is important to note that these items could easily be invaluable or simply unnecessary to the person’s life. It has been found that two out of every three people diagnosed are women, and that onset normally occurs during the late teen to early adult years (Christianini, Conti, Hearst, Cordas, de Abreu, & Tavares, 2015).
While it can be easy to dismiss those with this disorder and say people are being greedy or irresponsible, individuals with kleptomania actually report that their urges to steal are “out of character”, “uncontrollable”, or “wrong” (Blum, Odlaug, Redden, & Grant, 2018). Rather than a blameworthy desire to rebel, as it can easily be construed, this urge to steal is an uncontrollable impulse that the individuals wish they did not have. In addition, it is important to note that in the aftermath of a theft, it is very common for those with kleptomania to experience remorse and guilt (Blum et.al, 2018). That is to stress that these individuals do not take pride in their stealing and are often ashamed of their actions, but due to social stigma and legal repercussions almost never feel comfortable seeking professional help. Furthermore, people with kleptomania often suffer from severe emotional anguish, impaired quality of life, and are more likely to attempt suicide (Blum et. al, 2018). In addition, they tend to have serious legal problems and little to no self-esteem (Saluja, et al., 2014). One woman with kleptomania laments, “My entire life has been torment. Each day I worry about having the urges, and then I worry about being caught stealing. I can’t relax.” This woman’s experience demonstrates how truly agonizing it can be to suffer from kleptomania (Grant 2018).
The available research on kleptomania is severely limited due to the fact that it is such a rare disorder and obtaining substantial samples of individuals who suffer from it is quite difficult (Kim, Christianini, Aparecida, & Tavares, 2017). Another factor that further complicates research is that when an individual is diagnosed with kleptomania, it is very common for them to be diagnosed with an additional disorder, including substance abuse, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders. kleptomania may even be directly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as has been hypothesized by psychologists. Samples, however, have shown anywhere between 6.5% and 60% of individuals with kleptomania also having OCD (Saluja, Chan, & Dhaval, 2014). More research needs to be conducted concerning the combination of kleptomania with other kinds of disorders in order for us to fully understand how kleptomania affects an individual’s life and where specifically in the brain they are affected.
Treatment for kleptomania is still being developed, but as of now both psychotherapy and psychopharmacology are being utilized. One form of psychotherapy used is aversion therapy, which works by conditioning the person to associate their troublesome behavior with an unwanted stimulus, primarily electrical or chemical. More research must be conducted however, as a proper and standard treatment has not yet been established.
Overall, it is difficult to establish a standard treatment for kleptomania, because like other disruptive behavior disorders, treatment depends on an individual’s unique temperament and experiences. There is no cure for this disorder, but it can be managed with ongoing therapy. People who are affected by kleptomania can explore the triggers to their compulsions and learn to manage them in more positive ways with the help of mental health professionals and strong support systems.
Blum, A. W., Odlaug, B. L., Redden, S. A., & Grant, J. E. (2018). Stealing behavior and impulsivity in individuals with kleptomania who have been arrested for shoplifting. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 80, 186–191. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2017.10.002
Britannica, T. E. of E. (2018, November 23). Aversion therapy. Retrieved September 29, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/science/aversion-therapy.
Christianini, A. R., Conti, M. A., Hearst, N., Cordas, T. A., Nabuco deAbreu, C., & Tavares, H. (2014, September 19). Treating Kleptomania: cross-cultural adaptation of the kleptomania Symptom Assessment Scale and assessment of an outpatient program. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010440X14002697
Grant, J. E. (2018, December 11). Kleptomania: Emerging therapies target mood, impulsive behavior. Retrieved from https://www.mdedge.com/psychiatry/article/59629/personality-disorders/kleptomania-emerging-therapies-target-mood-impulsive.
Kim, Hyoun S., Christianini, Aparecida Rangon, Hodgins, David C., & Tavares, Hermano. (2017). Impairments of kleptomania: what are they?. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, 39(3), 279-280. https://dx-doi-org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/10.1590/1516-4446-2017-2218
Saluja, B., Chan, L. G., & Dhaval, D. (2014). Kleptomania: a case series. Singapore medical journal, 55(12), e207–e209. doi:10.11622/smedj.2014188