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Spotlight on Kleptomania and the Urge to Steal

written by: Maelin McCartney • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 4/21/2011

Kleptomania is the overwhelming, anxiety-driven urge to steal. Read on to learn more about the causes and symptoms of kleptomania.

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    What is Kleptomania?

    An impulse control disorder closely related to obsessive compulsive disorder, kleptomania typically involves stealing items that are not needed and that hold little monetary or personal value. Often the items are stolen from stores, but in many cases stolen objects belong to family members, friends, acquaintances and employers.

    People with kleptomania don’t steal for revenge, personal gain or for fun. They steal because the urge is too great to resist, and it becomes a cycle. After a person with kleptomania steals, they feel guilt, self-loathing and tension. These feelings build, along with the urge to steal. When the urge becomes irresistible, the person steals again, and the cycle repeats, creating distress and dysfunction.

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    Symptoms

    The symptoms of kleptomania include:

    • Strong, irresistible urges to steal items despite adverse consequences
    • Feelings of tension that are only relieved while stealing
    • Feelings of gratification, pleasure and sometimes arousal while stealing
    • Feelings of shame after the theft.
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    Causes

    Kleptomania generally materializes during puberty. No single cause for kleptomania has been determined; however, several theories exist and some research suggests that a chemical imbalance in the brain may be to blame. A naturally occurring chemical called serotonin regulates emotion and mood in the brain, and some people with kleptomania have been found to have low levels of this neurotransmitter. Substance abuse has also been linked to the onset of kleptomania, giving credence to the chemical imbalance theory, as drug abuse can upset the chemical balance of the brain. Lesser accepted theories include head trauma or brain injury, and exposure to carbon monoxide poisoning.

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    Prevalence

    Although an exact number is unknown, perhaps due to the shame involved and a hesitancy to seek treatment for kleptomania, it’s estimated that approximately 0.6% of the population suffers from kleptomania, and it affects more females than males. It’s also estimated that, despite the high occurrence of theft and shoplifting crime in the United States, less than 5% of those caught genuinely suffer from kleptomania.

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    Comorbidity

    People with kleptomania frequently suffer from other disorders at the same time. Schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and obsessive compulsive disorders are commonly seen, as well as hoarding and clinical depression. In addition, substance abuse is very often seen in people with kleptomania, though it is unknown whether the substance abuse occurs before the kleptomania or afterwards as a balm, of sorts.

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    Risk Factors

    Though the cause of kleptomania has not yet been identified, there are risk factors seen in many people who suffer from the disorder, including:

    • Extreme life stressors, such as a job loss or the death of a loved one
    • Head trauma or traumatic brain injury
    • Having an obsessive compulsive disorder
    • Having close relatives who suffer from kleptomania or related impulse control disorders.

    There is no cure for kleptomania; however, knowing the risk factors and being aware of the symptoms are the first steps in recognizing the problem and seeking treatment.

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    References

    Psychiatry Online: Psychopathology and Comorbidity of Psychiatric Disorders in Patients With Kleptomania- http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/160/8/1509

    Mayo Clinic: Kleptomania- http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/kleptomania/DS01034