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Kleptomania--the Urge to Steal

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Kleptomania is the overwhelming urge to steal items that one really does not need or have little value. Kleptomania is a serious social problem as it can create havoc in a person’s life if it is not treated early. The impulse to steal is very strong and people have no control over it. Unfortunately, because of the taboo associated with the diagnosis of “thief” most people with this disorder remain silent and never seek therapy. Most people only seek treatment when they are caught and in legal difficulties.

The symptoms of kleptomania may include1) an irresistible urge to steal items not needed 2) a heightened stress just prior to the stealing 3) feeling delight to fulfillment while stealing and 4) feeling intense guilt or disgrace after the theft.
What must be understood is that unlike the typical shoplifter, kleptomaniacs do not steal for personal gain nor do they commit the theft as a means of revenge. The stealing is done because of the intense urge that is beyond control. Until they steal, these individuals feel anxious, tensed, and extremely hypersensitive. To resolve these feelings they steal.

Kleptomania occurs spontaneously and is rarely a planned event. Sometimes a simple argument may trigger an episode of kleptomania. Kleptomaniacs may steal from public places, from friends and family or from work. Men tend to steal “hard” items whereas many women steal jewelry, undergarments or private letters. In many cases, the same items are repeatedly stolen and there may be an ingredient of fetishism.

Like all things in mental health, the cause of kleptomania remains a puzzle. It is believed to be to an abnormality in one the brain neurotransmitters called serotonin. Kleptomania is rare but the actual numbers of people affected remain unknown. Less than 5 percent of people caught for shoplifting are kleptomaniacs. The disorder usually starts in early childhood and peaks in the second decade of life. Risk factors for kleptomania include head trauma, life stress, having a family member with a mental health disorder (mood disorder, addiction or impulsivity). Doctors use the criteria stated in DSM to make a diagnosis of kleptomania. If kleptomania is untreated, it usually leads to legal, financial and emotional problems. Most kleptomaniacs know that stealing is wrong but are powerless to resist the urge to steal. Many of them are left with residual feelings of remorse, disgrace, embarrassment and self-loathing. Often kleptomania is associated with other disorders like alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, social isolation, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Kleptomania is difficult to overcome with self-treatment at home. There are no standard treatments for the disorder and doctors use a combination of medications and psychotherapy to help overcome the impulse to steal. Even though medications like anti depressants and mood stabilizers are used, there is no clinical evidence that these medications help overcome kleptomania. Moreover, the same medication does not work in all individuals. Most of the medications relieve stress, cause generalized sedation and diminish the urge to steal. The major thrust of treatment is psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been used to identify unhealthy negative behaviors and replace them with healthy positive attitudes. CBT can gradually help people overcome kleptomania, but the treatment is long term and expensive.
To prevent relapse, individuals are urged to develop a support system. This may means educating one's self about the disorder, adopting healthy attitudes, learning to relax and remaining focused. Since the cause of kleptomania is unknown, it is difficult to prevent it. The best way to treat it is to seek help early. Overall, the prognosis of kleptomania depends on the severity of the condition. Those in the early stages can overcome the disorder but those with a long history often end up in legal and financial problems.

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November 11, 2010 - 7:20am
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