Kleptomania

Overview

What is kleptomania?

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.

Who does kleptomania affect?

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.

How common is this condition?

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.

How does kleptomania affect my body?

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.

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of kleptomania?

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:

  • The items aren’t stolen out of necessity or for their value.
  • A person feels tension or anticipation before stealing, followed by pleasure, relief or other positive emotions immediately afterward.
  • Once the positive emotions fade, most people with kleptomania feel guilt, shame or regret.
  • Some people throw stolen items away, give them to others or donate them to charity. Less commonly, a person will hoard stolen items, secretly return them or return and pay for them.
  • Stealing isn’t planned, and a person with kleptomania does it alone. Most people who are married with kleptomania keep it a secret from their spouse.

What causes kleptomania?

Experts don’t know why kleptomania happens. However, there’s evidence that points to some possible causes.

  • Differences in brain structure. People with kleptomania are more likely to have certain differences in the structure of their brains, especially in areas that manage impulse control and inhibitions. These differences might indicate weaker or fewer connections in their brain areas that control inhibition.
  • Differences in brain chemistry. Your brain uses specialized chemicals known as neurotransmitters to communicate and manage certain processes. There are cases where people developed kleptomania after they began taking medications that affect neurotransmitter their brain’s neurotransmitters. However, these cases are rare, and more study is necessary to know why this happens.
  • As a symptom of other mental health conditions. Some experts classify kleptomania as a symptom, not a condition. It’s extremely common for people with kleptomania to have other mental health issues, especially anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addictions and substance use disorders. They also have a higher risk of self-harm and suicide.
  • Genetics. Experts don’t know if a person can inherit kleptomania or if a family history raises your risk of having it. While people with kleptomania often have a family history of other mental health conditions — especially anxiety, mood and substance use disorders — there’s no firm evidence that it’s genetic.

Is kleptomania contagious?

Kleptomania isn’t contagious, and you can't pass it from person to person.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is kleptomania diagnosed?

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:

  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to not steal, and the stolen items weren’t taken because a person needed them or needed something valuable to trade or exchange for money.
  • Feeling tension or anticipation before stealing.
  • Feeling positive emotions (such as relief or pleasure) or feeling “high” immediately after stealing.
  • The act of stealing isn’t an emotional response (done out of anger or for revenge) and isn’t happening because of a delusion (a strongly held false belief) or a hallucination.
  • Another mental health condition, such as conduct disorder, manic behavior or antisocial personality disorder, isn’t a better explanation for the behavior.

What tests will be done 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.

Management and Treatment

How is kleptomania treated and is there a cure?

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:

  • Medication. Opioid antagonists (which block the effects of opioid medications) are one of the first-line treatment options. There’s research supporting their effectiveness. These medications block the positive emotions a person feels when stealing, which could help a person resist the urge to steal. Other possible medications include antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs or lithium.
  • Psychotherapy. Also known as mental health therapy or behavioral therapy, this usually involves helping a person understand why they do certain things and then helping them develop ways to change or avoid those behaviors. Psychotherapy for kleptomania can take many forms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy or even hypnosis.

Complications/side effects of the treatment

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.

How do I take care of myself or manage my symptoms?

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.

How soon after treatment will I feel better?

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.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk of developing kleptomania or prevent it all together?

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.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have kleptomania?

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.

How long does kleptomania last?

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.

What is the outlook for kleptomania?

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.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

If you have kleptomania and are receiving treatment, there are a few things you can do to take care of yourself:

  • Be honest with your healthcare provider about what you’re experiencing. It’s common for people with kleptomania to feel guilt or shame. Your healthcare provider’s job is to help, not judge you. Being honest will help them diagnose and treat you sooner.
  • Take medication if prescribed. Medication can make a big difference for some people with kleptomania. It’s important to take your medications as prescribed. You shouldn’t stop taking medications before talking to your healthcare provider. Suddenly stopping medications for kleptomania, especially antidepressants, can have unpleasant or even dangerous effects.
  • See your healthcare provider(s) as recommended. Follow-up visits allow your healthcare provider to make sure your medications (if you take any) are working as they should. Therapy visits are also important, as they help you learn to manage this condition.
  • Find strategies to adapt. Many people with kleptomania can compensate for this condition by finding ways to avoid the temptation to steal. For example, they might shop with another person or in places where it’s harder to steal. A mental health provider — such as a therapist or counselor — may be able to help you devise a strategy that works for you.

When should I see my healthcare provider?

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:

  • Any new symptoms or changes in your behavior that you can’t explain.
  • Medication side effects that are difficult to tolerate or that disrupt your routine and activities.
  • If you notice your medication isn’t effective or it starts to lose its effectiveness over time.

When should I go to ER?

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:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (United States). To call this line, dial 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255).
  • Local crisis lines. Mental health organizations and centers in your area may offer resources and help through crisis lines.
  • 911 (or your local emergency services number). You should call 911 (or your local emergency services number) if you feel like you’re having a mental health crisis and are in immediate danger of harming yourself. Operators and dispatchers for 911 lines can often help people in immediate danger by sending first responders to assist.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I do if a loved one shows signs of kleptomania, or tells me they think they might have it?

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.

References

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  • Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5e-TR. May 2022. Accessed 6/15/2022.
  • Fariba KA, Gokarakonda SB. Impulse Control Disorders. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562279/) [Updated 2022 May 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Accessed 6/15/2022.
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  • Mangot AG. Neurobiology of Kleptomania: an overview. (http://dx.doi.org/10.4038/sljpsyc.v5i2.7305) Sri Lanka Journal of Psychiatry. 2014;5(2):2. Accessed 6/15/2022.
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