In Syndromes & Disorders

What is Kleptomania?

Kleptomania

Thieves have been viewed as menaces to society for centuries. Several stories, including the notorious fictional account of Bonnie and Clyde, have classified those who steal as people who do so to hurt other members in the community. Contrary to these portrayals, however, everyone who steals does not willfully commit the act to harm others. Some thieves suffer from kleptomania and are unable to control their urges to purloin.

What is Kleptomania?

In short, kleptomania is a strong urge to steal. By definition, looting is taking an item that does not belong to you and failing to return it. Whereas a person who asks to borrow a pencil and returns it after he is finished is not guilty of stealing, someone who takes the pencil without asking and passes it off as one of their own can be considered a thief. Kleptomaniacs are typically viewed as outlaws because they share characteristics with thieves who purposely keep items that do not belong to them.

The Difference Between a Kleptomaniac and Ordinary Thief

Whereas average thieves can resist the urge to take something that does not belong to them, kleptomaniacs cannot prevent themselves from stealing. An ordinary thief can have a strong desire to pilfer an automobile but can stop himself from making a mistake. A kleptomaniac can have the same desire to take the automobile but will be unable to mentally resist the temptation to break in and drive away.

In addition to having feelings that overtake them, a kleptomaniac’s motivation for stealing something such as a car is different from an ordinary thief. Whereas the average thief will be motivated by the beauty or value of the vehicle, the kleptomaniac will not consider the worth or splendor of the car when thinking of taking it. For such person, the mere fact that the vehicle is in their path is more than enough reason to steal it from its rightful owner.

Kleptomania in History

Many have not understood kleptomaniacs in history. Some believed that the mental illness was created as a way to excuse wealthy individuals who took items that they could have easily purchased. Others thought the medical condition was one that came about as a result of having an unfulfilling sex life. Several theories concerning kleptomania circulated during the nineteenth century but none sought to discover the root cause of the illness; that is until Sigmud Freud came on the scene.

Although he did not create a theory specifically for kleptomania, Freud presented ideas that were used by his followers to identify the illness as a psychological problem. It was from such identification that Fritz Wittels presented the claim of kleptomania being related to sexual relationships. According to Wittels, individuals who received much intimacy were fulfilled and had no desire to take from another person. Those whose love lives were unfulfilling lacked the excitement and thrill that came along with intercourse. As a result, these individuals stole from others to fill the void that the lack of sexual pleasure left.

Such thinking ultimately led to kleptomania being classified as an illness that only affected women. Men who were found to suffer from the disorder were said to be homosexuals. Although research has proven that women are more prone to develop kleptomania than men, modern science has abandoned the idea of associating the condition with womanhood.

Potential Causes

There is no known cause of kleptomania. There are, however, several theories available that attempt to describe the origins of the disorder.

One theory links kleptomania with serotonin. The role of serotonin is to regulate emotions. Low levels of the neurotransmitter are common in people who act impulsively. Since kleptomania is considered impulsive behavior, many claim that those who suffer with the illness have small amounts of serotonin.

Others in the psychological sector deem kleptomania as an addiction. These medical professionals claim that stealing causes dopamine to be released in the brain, which brings about pleasure. Various researchers have also deemed kleptomania the result of a head injury.

The Kleptomaniac Cycle

A person who has kleptomania abides by a cycle when taking things. The individual will usually acquire an urge for the item in question that is so powerful that reason substantially decreases. The kleptomaniac will not consider his surroundings nor will he think about getting caught. He will only consider the desired item in front of him and how much he wants to be in possession of the piece.

Anxiety will typically arise to the point of the person feeling as if he will miss out on some sort of thrill if he does not seize the moment and act quickly. In an effort to ravish the opportunity, he will take the item and immediately get a sense of relief.

Soon after, however, guilt will follow that will make the kleptomaniac feel as if he has done an evil to society. This is another difference between kleptomaniacs and ordinary thieves. A thief steals with purpose and usually feels no remorse, while a kleptomaniac takes unowned items for pleasure and later regrets his actions. Even with the kleptomaniac’s guilt, though, the feelings of urgency return and the cycle is repeated.

In Children

Although many claim that remnants of kleptomania do not become apparent until adults are thirty years years old, several studies prove that the disorder is also prevalent in adolescents. Teenagers and even children under the age of ten have been diagnosed as kleptomaniacs, and receive counseling for such illness. Since kids who steal are often viewed as little menaces to society, it is important for parents to be attentive and take action when their children keep items that they do not own.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Kleptomaniacs are sometimes viewed as hoarders because they have so many items in their possession. The difference, however, between a hoarder and kleptomaniac is that the hoarder owns all of his possessions while the kleptomaniac does not.

Children who have an abundance of toys that you, as a parent, know you did not buy may have “borrowed” the items from another child. Although the exchange could be legit in that the rightful owner gave them permission to use the toys, it is always better to err on the safe side and ask questions. If the answers given can be verified by an eyewitness or the owner, then you can put your worries to rest. If, however, your child cannot give a viable explanation, then you should investigate further.

In the same manner, teenagers who come home with expensive items that you, as the parent, know they could never afford by simply working a few hours after school should be questioned. The case could be that they scrimped and saved to be in possession of something nice, but it is better to inquire than to be blind-sided if they did in fact steal. Kleptomania in teenagers should be detected quickly since the act can lead to serious consequences. Whereas children who steal typically only answer to parents, teenagers who take things must answer to their parents as well as law enforcement. Depending on the items stolen, such offenses can lead to jail time for adolescents. This is why parents must be vigilant and active when dealing with kleptomania in teenagers.

While children and teenagers have parental support when addressing their urge to steal, adults suffering from kleptomania have few friends who even recognize the signs of the disorder. Many view a man who runs out of the convenience store with a case of liquor he has not paid for as an alcoholic who is only trying to feed his addiction to substances. Few, however, consider that perhaps he is satisfying the urge to take such case. This is more than likely true if the man has enough money to pay for the item he stole.

Kleptomania in adults often goes unnoticed because few take the time to recognize the signs. If you have a friend or loved one who has an abundance of things that a “friend” always gives them, consider questioning who this friend may be. If he or she cannot give you a feasible explanation then take your investigation further. Although you cannot force an adult to seek professional help for kleptomania, you can strongly encourage them to talk with their doctor about the illness.

What Would the Doctor Say?

Since kleptomania is a mental disorder, a physician will probably suggest individuals to seek assistance from a psychiatrist if they suffer from the illness. The mental health professional will more than likely ask a series of questions related to the feelings they get when stealing and make his decision from there. If he does determine that a patient suffers from kleptomania, he may prescribe medication. Most psychiatrists, however, suggest individuals attend cognitive behavioral therapy before receiving medication for kleptomania.

Classified as a form of psychotherapy that offers realistic solutions to problems, cognitive behavioral therapy will help patients understand root causes associated with their urges to steal, and assist in efforts to build self-control that can serve as a cure for kleptomania.

If natural efforts do not help in finding a cure, the doctor may prescribe antidepressants. Although these medications have numerous side effects that can lead to depression, they can suppress urges and provide temporary relief to the problem. Patients should, however, still work to build willpower that can outshine the drive to steal.

Conclusion

Kleptomania is a serious mental disorder that requires professional care. This illness can lead to dire consequences if not identified and properly treated. Individuals who find themselves unable to stop taking items that do not belong to them should seek counsel from their physician and other medical professionals. Although most medical staff usually inform law enforcement of crimes committed, psychiatrists will typically refrain from reporting past offenses of kleptomaniacs.

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