Kleptomania is a disorder characterized by the constant desire to steal. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding kleptomania. Currently, research for kleptomania is not well funded, nor is the condition well understood by the scientific community. Despite being understudied, kleptomania has been mentioned in medical and legal documents dating back centuries. Kleptomania may be overdiagnosed, as many of its diagnostic criteria are self-reported by individuals with the disease, and the degree to which each person meets criteria cannot always be verified.

There are specific diagnostic criteria for kleptomania, which include:

  • The urge to steal is not due to monetary or personal gain
  • Feelings of internal tension before an individual steals
  • Feelings of relief or pleasure after stealing, followed by periods of grief, anxiety, remorse and regret
  • Stealing is not due to feelings of anger, vengeance, hallucinations/delusions, a conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder or a manic episode

People struggling with kleptomania report higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders, as well as co-occurring substance abuse. While little is known about the cause of kleptomania, dispelling common kleptomania myths can provide a better understanding of the condition.

1. Myth: Kleptomaniacs can control their urge to steal

Fact: Kleptomania is a compulsion to steal that cannot be controlled

Medical professionals consider kleptomania as an impulse control disorder. Impulse control disorders are defined as conditions where an individual cannot resist impulses that may cause harm to themselves or others. In the case of kleptomania, the urge to steal is intense and cannot be controlled. People with kleptomania may be very aware of the consequences of stealing, yet they still must steal to satisfy their urges. Like other impulse control disorders including problem gambling, individuals may attempt to stop, but cannot. Kleptomania has various treatment options including prescribed medication and psychotherapy.

2. Myth: People with kleptomania only take items of value

Fact: Individuals with kleptomania often steal insignificant objects

As part of the diagnostic criteria for kleptomania, people with this condition do not steal objects for their value, but rather to fulfill their urge to steal. In many cases, people steal items that they may not need or want, only to be stashed away and never seen again. People struggling with kleptomania or shoplifting should consult a medical professional. Even if they are fearful or embarrassed, kleptomania can be treated successfully just like any addiction. It should be noted that medical professionals will not report the stealing activity of their kleptomaniac patients — so fear of being caught by law enforcement should not stop an individual with kleptomania from seeking proper treatment.

3. Myth: Kleptomaniacs feel no remorse for their actions

Fact: People with kleptomania often feel remorse for stealing

According to the Mayo Clinic, people diagnosed with kleptomania often experience extreme feelings of remorse, regret, shame, fear and guilt after stealing an object. Some people may feel fearful that their actions will lead to an arrest or being discovered by law enforcement. Unfortunately, for those struggling with this condition, the intense urge to steal can hit at any time and place. Kleptomaniacs often report stealing from random places like supermarkets and the mall, or at more intimate places like the home of a friend or family member. If discovered, relationships and the mental health of the person diagnosed with kleptomania can suffer immensely.

4. Myth: People with kleptomania steal because they cannot afford the items

Fact: Kleptomaniacs often steal items they can easily afford

The Mayo Clinic states that people with kleptomania can often easily afford to buy the items they steal, but are seeking the rush that stealing provides. If a person steals an object simply because it is expensive, then they would not meet diagnostic criteria for kleptomania, but could be considered shoplifters. In some cases, people with kleptomania will secretly return stolen items to their rightful owners or give them as gifts to others. Shoplifting and kleptomania may easily be confused but can be distinguished from one another by whether stealing was planned or spontaneous. Often times, a shoplifter will plan ahead of time the object they want to steal, whereas there is generally no underlying thought process or premeditation in a person with kleptomania. Shoplifters tend to feel anxious before stealing, while kleptomaniacs often feel anxiety and guilt after stealing, though this is dependent on the individual and the object stolen.

5. Myth: Kleptomania can be used as a legal defense

Fact: Kleptomania cannot be used as a legal defense, even in cases of insanity

Though kleptomania is a legitimate mental health condition recognized by the medical establishment, it cannot be used as a legal criminal defense. In other words, an individual is fully responsible for their stealing activity and can be prosecuted despite a diagnosis of kleptomania. In rare cases, a criminal defense team may successfully argue that the defendant has absolutely no impulse control — but this is not the case with the majority of kleptomaniacs. Most people diagnosed with this condition have some sense of impulse control, particularly in moral concerns outside of stealing. In cases where a defense team argues insanity and kleptomania, the individual will still typically have to serve time. They may be able to receive treatment at a mental institution rather than prison, however.

6. Myth: Individuals with kleptomania cannot be treated

Fact: Several evidence-based treatments exist for kleptomania

Although kleptomania has no specific cure, there are several treatments with proven efficacy for treating this condition. Most often, individual psychotherapy is recommended and includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The overall goal of psychotherapy is for an individual to realize why they act on the impulse to steal. People in therapy will also learn techniques to curb their desire to steal, as well as techniques to relieve stress. Certain prescribed medications can be used to control urges, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

If you or a loved one struggle with untreated kleptomania and a co-occurring addiction, help is available at The Recovery Village. Contact a representative at The Recovery Village to learn about specialized treatment options for co-occurring mental health conditions and addiction and how you can get started on the road to recovery.