By Malika Noor Mehta
Artwork by Kanika Dhankher
Have you ever had the impulse to take something that did not belong to you? Have you ever tried to steal something truly banal, something you did not need and would probably never use? Have you ever reprimanded yourself for these “stealer” instincts, or wondered why you have them in the first place?
Dangerous questions. Leading questions. And questions that do not entirely do justice to the complexity of what a person with Kleptomania faces. So let’s not stop here.
What is Kleptomania?
Kleptomania is indeed an impulse control disorder where a person cannot resist the temptation to steal. In all likelihood, the object being stolen is neither useful nor particularly desirable to the person. Research has shown that the person experiences a sense of anxiety, tension or arousal in the lead up to the theft. While stealing, the person may feel a sense of relief or even pleasure. Yet, after the theft, the person is likely wracked with remorse, guilt and shame. There is, of course, fear of getting caught or facing legal action. Kleptomania is characterized by recurrent urges to steal, and the repetition of the kleptomania cycle of emotions.
It is absolutely critical to distinguish a typical shoplifter from a person who struggles with kleptomania. There is a high probability that the shoplifter is stealing for personal gain, or because of social or financial pressure. A person with kleptomania, however, simply cannot resist the urge to steal; more often than not, there is no self-serving reason underlying the theft. As such, a kleptomania episode occurs rather spontaneously. The person does not plan for it and is rarely ever collaborating with a second or third person during the theft. Usually, these episodes occur in public places such as markets or stores, or perhaps a friend’s home. The object being stolen is nondescript and the person can often afford to simply purchase it. In the aftermath of the theft, the person may actually try to return the object, or store it away and never use it.
The Prevalence of Kleptomania
Individuals who struggle with Kleptomania often feel ashamed or embarrassed about their condition. Therefore, the likelihood of obtaining accurate data through self-reporting is low. Estimates of the prevalence of the condition are extracted through smaller clinical samples, and some of these studies indicate that Kleptomania may not be as rare as it seems.
Yet, at the present moment, the global prevalence of Kleptomania remains between 0.3% and 0.6%. In the United States, approximately 1.2 million adults likely struggle with this disorder, nearly 6 out of 1000 individuals.
Research has also found that of those arrested for shoplifting, between 3.8% to 24% struggle with Kleptomania. The wide range demonstrates that there are often several, complex factors that lead to the diagnosis of the disorder.
The Complexity of Kleptomania:
Kleptomania is strongly associated with other mental health conditions. There is a significant correlation between Kleptomania and the pre-existence of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Depression and anxiety may also occur as a result of Kleptomania, as the person feels shame and guilt for stealing. Furthermore, individuals struggling with Kleptomania are also more likely to face mood disorders and substance abuse disorders. Give the complexity of the disorder, research attempts to understand this condition through several, distinct approaches.
The Psychoanalytic Approach: Given its low prevalence rates, there is not a lot of research on the topic. Therefore, the manner in which Kleptomania originates is relatively unknown. We do know, however, that kleptomania often presents itself during adolescence.
Psychoanalysis links this condition to childhood trauma, perhaps related to neglectful or abusive caregivers. In these instances, the urge to steal may arise from the psyche’s desire to regain control or repossess the loss of childhood. Ultimately, the psychoanalytic approach to Kleptomania aims to uncover the underlying motivation behind these impulses, whatever they may be.
The Cognitive-Behavioural Approach: This approach explains Kleptomania through the positive reinforcement of the act of stealing or the lack of negative consequences after the theft. The line of thought explains that as the dangers associated with the impulse to steal decrease, the cues associated with stealing become strong. Therefore, the person is more likely to continue, particularly in situations where the environmental cues present themselves. In those instances, the person simply cannot control their urges.
The Biological Approach: The biological explanations for kleptomania connect the impulse to certain areas of the brain, and to the potential dysfunction of particular neurotransmitters (a messenger chemical that transmits neurological signals between the brain and nerve cells). Research has linked kleptomania to damage in the frontal lobe in the brain, particularly as a result of blunt trauma. In these cases, the trauma that has caused behavioural symptoms like aggression, physical symptoms like dizziness, and cognitive symptoms like the loss of memory. Alongside these symptoms, Kleptomania suddenly emerged too.
While there is little scientific research regarding the effectiveness of psychiatric medication in the treatment of Kleptomania, The Cleveland Clinic explains that certain medications may help. While it is critical to remember that each patient is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan for Kleptomania, doctors have often considered prescribing a medication called Naltrexone. This is a medication that combats addiction, and Kleptomania is indeed considered a type of addiction. This medication could potentially decrease the impulse to steal by reducing the pleasure associated with the act.
Furthermore, doctors have also treated people with Kleptomania by prescribing antidepressants. Given the high correlation between depression and Kleptomania, before the onset of the condition as well as after, this course of treatment often helps. Specifically, doctors prescribe something called an SSRI or a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that improves mood and sleep patterns. While it is too simplistic to say that depression is caused by low serotonin levels, the rise in serotonin certainly improves the symptoms of depression and helps individuals respond to therapeutic interventions.
Finally, the cognitive behavioural therapy approach focuses on the exploration of the person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviours. During CBT, a therapist will work closely with the person struggling with Kleptomania to help them identify the cues that lead to these urges. After addressing the cues, the person and the therapist will likely work together to develop constructive ways in which to prevent the impulses from controlling the person. It is also highly likely that the therapist will reinforce a positive mindset, and ensure that the person does not judge himself or herself for struggling with this disorder. That shift in mindset and acceptance of self is critical in the process of recovery.
Acceptance is always the first step in healing. First, accepting the presence of a mental health condition like Kleptomania, and the stigma and complexity associated with it. Accepting the need for external help, and reaching out to friends, family as well as mental health professionals. Accepting the time required to recover and heal, perhaps because Kleptomania may be a manifestation of an unaddressed past trauma or an unmet need. Accepting that the urge to steal may indeed arise even after treatment, but never letting yourself self-degenerate because of this supposed ‘failure.’ All of it is about acceptance. And it is the only way forward.
About the author
Malika Noor Mehta is a mental health entrepreneur. Before the pandemic, she was engaged in creating a fellowship program that placed mental health counsellors in low-cost schools in Mumbai. Her interest in mental health stems from her teaching experience at Teach for India and her time in Jordan and Greece, creating trauma-sensitive education programs for Syrian refugees. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, she loves to write and take photographs.