Kleptomania (pathological stealing)
By: Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD
Kleptomania is a neurotic condition characterized by the persistent impossibility to resist the drive to steal objects. The objects are not stolen by their immediate utility or monetary value; on the contrary, the subject may wish to discard them, give them away or collect them. This behavior is usually associated with a sense of satisfaction during and immediately after its accomplishment. Stealing is not done to express anger or vengeance nor it is a response to delirium or hallucination.

This word was coined more than two hundred years ago to describe the impulsive stealing of unnecessary or of little value objects. Esquirol observed, in 1838, that the individual frequently tries to avoid this behavior, which by its own nature, is irresistible. He wrote: "voluntary control is deeply affected; the patient is constrained to practice act which are dictated by his reasoning, nor by his emotions -- acts that his consciousness condemns, but he shows no intention.

Affected individuals frequently present other mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia or anxiety. Adult kleptomaniacs steal because this offers relief or emotional comfort. Few people look for treatment before getting caught red-handed.

What is the incidence of cleptomania in the general population?

Cleptomania is assumed to be a rare condition, although few studies have been carried out about its prevalence in the general population. Studies on shoplifting suggest that only a small percentage (from 1 to 8%) represent true kleptomania behavior.

In fact, shoplifting is extremely common, according to a study. A researcher described that from some 263 customers that were shopping at random, 27 (roughly 10%) were seen stealing.  Another study estimated that there are approximately 140 million shoplifting episodes a year, but only 4 million shoplifters are caught. Moreover, the incidence of shoplifting is increasing.

How to distinguish a thief from a kleptomaniac?

There are no controlled studies on the psychopathology of cleptomania, but several case reports describe a wide range of psychiatric symptoms and disorders with an apparent cleptomania. The most common symptoms associated seem to be related to mood disturbances. The majority of studies on "abnormal thieves" (people who were caught stealing and sent do psychiatric evaluation) has described high rates of depressive symptoms and depression in those subjects. From 57 kleptomaniac patients described in the literature, 57% showed affect symptoms and 36% would probably be diagnosed with a criteria for depression or bipolar disorder.
Some patients suffering from cleptomania and associated mood disorder have described the relation between their affect symptoms and cleptomania, declaring that their impulse to steal happen when they are depressed.

Is there a treatment for kleptomania?

There are no controlled study of somatic or psychological treatment for cleptomania. Reports of individual cases, however, suggest that several types of behavior therapy can be effective to some patients. There also some isolated reports of successful use of psychoanalytical psychotherapy, although there are also many negative reports.
Other case reports suggest that anti-depressive medication or drugs that are considered to stabilize the "mood" can be effective in kleptomania.

The Author

Silvia Helena Cardoso,PhD. Psychobiologist, master and doctor in Sciences, Founder 
and editor-in-chief, Brain and Mind Magazine, State University of Campinas. 



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