The inability to resist an impulse to steal

Maria, a 17 year old girl walked in to a therapist’s clinic and looked very distressed. After talking for some time, she confessed that she has been in the habit of shoplifting from local stores since she was 14 years old. Before she started doing this, she would steal chalks from school, or pens and other stationery items from classmates. Initially she didn’t know what she was doing or why she was doing it, but it gave her a thrill and made her feel happy. She rarely used what she took from places. Of late, she has not been able to stop herself from picking up things at supermarkets and other stores. Everytime this happens, she feels very guilty afterwards.


What is kleptomania?


Kleptomania is defined as the inability to resist an impulse to steal. It is a fairly common condition in the west, in India there are about 1 million cases reported every year. People suffering from this condition have a powerful urge to steal things. What has been stolen is rarely taken for the purpose of personal use or for any monetary value. Objects stolen can range from something as small as a safety pin to larger items such as electronic appliances or furniture.

Kleptomania usually begins during adolescence or the person’s early twenties; it can last throughout a person’s lifetime. While it is possible that it begins to manifest at different stages in life – childhood or adulthood – cases of it starting in late adulthood are rare. An accurate number of persons living with kleptomania is not available as people often don’t wish to talk openly about it, due to the fear of possibly being arrested or fined. It is relevant to note that the significance of the act of stealing here has nothing to do with the object’s monetary value, but, with the feeling of satisfaction felt after getting hold of the object.


What is the difference between kleptomania and shoplifting?


Both may seem very alike but it is important to distinguish between the two.

(1) Kleptomania is the urge to steal things that are not yours and it is usually performed as a spontaneous act while shoplifting is the attempt to take things for personal use and often involves prior planning.

(2) A person with kleptomania feels an impulsive urge to steal in a way that feels compulsive while a shoplifter has an overwhelming desire to own things. The two appear to be similar and related but are different from each other.


What are the symptoms of kleptomania?


The common symptoms associated with kleptomania are:

  • Powerful urge to steal items that are not required by the person stealing them

  • Increased tension and worry felt prior to stealing the item

  • Pleasure experienced while stealing it

  • Going through feelings of guilt and shame after the episode

  • The thefts are not committed in response to any delusion, hallucination nor done out of anger or to exact revenge on anyone

  • In a few cases, the stolen objects are returned to assuage the feelings of guilt


What causes kleptomania?


The exact causes of kleptomania are not known, researchers have come up with a few hypotheses for what the reasons might be.

  • Frontal lobe dysfunction: The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control. A chemical or neurotransmitter imbalance can lead up to kleptomaniac symptoms.

  • Coexistence of other disorders: Kleptomania frequently coexists with other disorders like mild depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, substance abuse, or preexisting mood disorders.

  • Genetics: A few studies have also shown that kleptomania can be passed on through generations.


Getting treatment for kleptomania


Kleptomania is a lifelong condition. The treatments designed for kleptomania are aimed at helping the person manage the symptoms and do not promise a complete cure. People hesitate to come out and openly talk about it as they fear the consequences of doing so, this causes them a high amount of frustration and distress. These are some of the   available treatments for kleptomania.

  • Medication: Antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anti-seizure and addiction medication has been known to be effective in treating symptoms of kleptomania.

  • Therapies: Psychotherapeutic intervention has also worked well. Some of the techniques used have included –

  • Covert Sensitization: Here, the person is asked to imagine the end result of their actions if they get caught. Being more aware of possible negative consequences can help in sensitizing the individual towards not performing the act of stealing.

  • Aversion therapy: This method requires the person to do something that causes discomfort before they move towards committing the theft, like holding their breath until it becomes very difficult to do when there is an urge felt to steal something.

Kleptomania is a disorder that has a high amount of stigma in society and it is very difficult for this to be openly discussed by those living with it themselves. It must be emphasized that even though available treatment doesn't guarantee complete cure, it does provide help to the individual in managing their symptoms in a more controlled fashion.

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