Kleptomania is a mental health condition where a person feels an uncontrollable urge to steal things. People who have this condition might try, unsuccessfully, to not act on the urge, and many feel remorse or guilt for stealing. Experts classify kleptomania as an impulse control disorder. It’s often treatable with medications, therapy or both.
Kleptomania is a mental health condition where a person feels an overpowering, irresistible urge to steal things. People who have this disorder know that stealing is wrong and could get them into trouble, but they can’t stop themselves.
People who have kleptomania don’t steal because of a lack of willpower, self-control or a character flaw. Instead, this is a medical condition where a person doesn’t have the ability to resist the impulse to steal. It’s common for people with kleptomania to feel guilt, shame or stress about stealing. Many try to compensate for this by returning items, donating them to charity, or going back and paying for the items after the fact.
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Women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) are three times more likely to have kleptomania than men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB). It can happen to people of almost all ages, with cases diagnosed as young as age 4 and as old as age 77.
Kleptomania is uncommon. Experts estimate that it affects between 0.3% and 0.6% of the U.S. population. People with kleptomania make up between 4% and 5% of people arrested for shoplifting.
Your brain is like an incredibly complex computer, with an intricate network of connections between your brain’s different regions. Those connections make circuits, which your brain uses to help you form thoughts and turn those thoughts into actions. Each time you learn something new, your brain makes a new circuit.
When you learn not to do something, your brain creates a circuit that inhibits what you learned not to do. Inhibitions are very important to your survival and well-being. They’re also helpful in social situations, keeping you from doing or saying things that you know other people would find unacceptable.
People who have kleptomania know that stealing is wrong and that they shouldn’t do it. Despite knowing that, they can’t help themselves. For them, inhibition doesn’t work as it should. They also don’t feel deterred by the consequences of stealing, such as arrest or jail time.
The main symptom of kleptomania is that a person acts on an irresistible urge or need to steal items or objects. That often involves one or more of the following:
Experts don’t know why kleptomania happens. However, there’s evidence that points to some possible causes.
Kleptomania isn’t contagious, and you can't pass it from person to person.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition-TR, there are five criteria that a person must meet for a healthcare provider to diagnose kleptomania:
There aren’t any tests of any kind that can diagnose kleptomania. However, healthcare providers may recommend tests to rule out other conditions. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you if they recommend running tests for your specific case and why.
There’s no standard way to treat kleptomania, and there’s limited research on which treatments work best. That’s partly because people with kleptomania rarely seek care on their own, which means it’s harder to research possible treatments.
The most likely treatments fall into two main categories:
The complications possible with medications depend on many factors, including which medication(s) a person takes. Your healthcare provider is the best source of information about the side effects that are possible or likely for you, and what you can do to prevent or manage them.
Kleptomania is a mental health condition that isn’t always easy to diagnose. It also often overlaps with other mental health conditions. Some of those other conditions are serious or increase your risk of self-harm or suicide. Because of these factors, a trained, qualified healthcare provider should be the person to diagnose and treat kleptomania.
The time it takes to notice changes in your behavior or how you feel can vary, depending on what medication you take, the type of therapy you participate in and more. Your healthcare provider is the best source of information about the timeline for your recovery, including when you should start to notice changes in how you feel.
Kleptomania is a mental health condition that happens unpredictably and for reasons that experts still don’t fully understand. Because of that, it isn’t possible to prevent it or reduce your risk of developing it.
Kleptomania isn’t dangerous, but it can still severely affect your life. People with this condition often face legal consequences if caught. Kleptomania can also cause personal problems, like difficulties holding a job or maintaining friendships and troubled relationships.
While kleptomania isn’t dangerous by itself, it very commonly happens with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, substance use disorders and addictions, and more. People with kleptomania have a higher risk of self-harm and suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Kleptomania is usually a lifelong condition once a person develops it. People who have it also commonly experience times when the urge to steal feels stronger or weaker.
While kleptomania is usually a permanent condition, people can regain control over these impulses and stop themselves from stealing. People are most likely to succeed at controlling these impulses with treatment and support. The longer a person goes without treatment, the more likely this condition will negatively affect their life.
If you have kleptomania and are receiving treatment, there are a few things you can do to take care of yourself:
You should see your healthcare provider if you experience a repeated urge to steal that you can’t resist. This is important regardless of whether it’s a sudden change of behavior for you or if it’s something you’ve struggled with for a long time.
You should also see your provider after starting treatment if you notice any of the following:
You should go to the ER or call 911 (or your local emergency services number) if you have thoughts about harming yourself, including thoughts of suicide. If you have thoughts like this, you can call any of the following:
People with kleptomania often know they have an issue, but are afraid to seek help. They often live with feelings of shame, guilt and fear of what others will think of them. If a loved one tells you that they struggle with symptoms that might be kleptomania, they’re showing a lot of trust and vulnerability. Listening to them without judging can make a big difference. Knowing that someone is willing to support them without passing judgment may even encourage them to seek medical care.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Kleptomania is a mental health condition that causes an irresistible urge to steal items or objects. People who have this condition know stealing is wrong and commonly feel guilt or shame, but still can’t stop themselves. Kleptomania is a true medical issue, and people who have it don’t have the ability to stop themselves.
Without treatment, people with this condition have a high risk of legal issues, relationship problems or problems from other mental health conditions, including a higher risk of dying by suicide. With treatment, many people with this condition can resist these impulses or find ways to manage and adapt to this condition.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/15/2022.
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