If a person has kleptomania, he is unable to resist an urge or impulse to steal, although he may know that it is wrong to do so. The urge makes the person anxious, tense or aroused. Only stealing gives him relief or satisfaction, though he may feel regret or guilt later. Normally, people who steal take something because it is worth the money or if it is useful. If a person has kleptomania, he may take something that is useless to him.
What is the cause?
Kleptomania is a rare condition. Most people who steal do not have kleptomania. Fewer than 5% of shoplifters have kleptomania. While the causes of kleptomania are not known, there is some evidence that it may be related to the brain chemical serotonin. Stresses such as major losses may also lead to kleptomania. Kleptomania may begin as early as age five. Women are more likely to have kleptomania than men.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of kleptomania are:
Taking objects on impulse, without planning ahead.
Repeatedly taking things that are not valuable or needed for personal use.
Feeling very tense right before a theft.
Feeling pleasure or relief at the time of the theft.
Eating disorders and substance abuse disorders are also common in people with kleptomania.
How is it diagnosed?
A physician or a psychiatrist asks about the symptoms and any drug or alcohol use. Laboratory tests may be required to rule out medical problems. If a person is unable to control an impulse that might be harmful to him or others, and has the symptoms listed above, he may be diagnosed with kleptomania.
How is it treated?
Many kinds of therapy have been used to treat this disorder, but it is not clear which one is best.
Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) is a way to help the patient identify and change views he has of himself, the world, and the future that are not realistic. This therapy helps recognise the unhealthy ways of thinking. It helps learn new behaviour patterns that lead to a healthier living.
Treatment may involve behaviour modification and conditioning techniques. Aversive conditioning involves using negative stimuli to reduce or eliminate a behaviour. In covert sensitisation, the patient is made to first relax and visualise scenes of stealing. Then he imagines something negative, such as getting a hand stuck in the revolving door of the store. With assisted aversive conditioning, the negative event is real rather than imagined. The goal is to help the patient link his behaviour with something negative and avoid both.
Medicines such as antidepressants may help.
Family therapy may also be important, since this disorder can be very disruptive to families.