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Understanding kleptomania and dishonesty

Understanding kleptomania and dishonesty

Kleptomania is defined as the persistent irresistible impulse to steal. It’s a mental health condition that’s considered by the American Psychiatric Association to be an impulse-control disorder.

These are disorders that are characterized by not seeming able to resist an urge, compulsion or temptation. The person feels overwhelmed by these urges unless they act on them.

Someone with kleptomania does not really steal for individual reward or financial gain – but mostly due to the fact that they cannot seem to resist the intense urge they have to steal. So a kleptomaniac will often steal things that are not needed and not even worth much.

When they steal, there may be a brief feeling of pleasure or even a “high” due to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter causing feelings of pleasure and that is thought to be one driving force behind addictions. But a kleptomaniac will then often have huge feelings of shame and guilt afterwards.

To change the negative way they are feeling, a new urge to steal is likely to start forming. This is a reason why incidents of kleptomania are not usually planned – they are spontaneous acts.

The stealing and dealing with any aftermath can also act as a distraction from looking at some real issues that need addressing. Some of these can seem too painful to look at, and so the appeal of creating another distraction and getting another high from the stealing grows until it is too intense to ignore.

Who is a kleptomaniac?

Who is a kleptomaniac

Approximately two-thirds of people with kleptomania are female. Symptoms most often start in late teens or early 20s.

But signs have been seen of children as young as four years old. Others have not developed an overwhelming urge to steal until they have reached their 50s.

Kleptomania is believed to be behind around five percent of shoplifting incidents. It is thought that around six in every 1000 people in America have kleptomania.

What are the major symptoms of kleptomania?

What are the major symptoms of kleptomania

According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition), which is the primary book used to help make psychiatric diagnoses in the US, these are the diagnostic criteria for kleptomania:

  • There are recurrent incapabilities to resist urges to steal objects that aren’t necessary or needed for financial gain.
  • There is elevated pressure immediately prior to the theft.
  • The person experiences a sense of release and contentment while making their theft.
  • Their thefts are unrelated to any sort of revenge or due to hallucination or an illusion.
  • The theft is not the consequence of another conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder or manic phase.



First described in 1816, the word kleptomania derives from Greek words klepto meaning “to steal” and mania, which means “mad desire, compulsion”.

The following are considered to be major symptoms of kleptomania:

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Having persistent intrusive thoughts.
  • Seeming incapability of resisting an intense and burgeoning desire to steal objects (that are frequently not needed).
  • Increased pressure, excitement and/or anxiety before the theft.
  • A euphoric feeling of fulfillment and a high while making the theft.
  • Intense feelings of shame, guilt, and regret after stealing.
  • A seemingly overwhelming urge to steal once again starts to build up and intensifies – and so the cycle continues.



Connected conditions to kleptomania

Connected conditions to kleptomania

People with kleptomania often suffer as well from mood disorders – when a person’s constant emotional state is considerably disturbed – and this includes every type of depression and bipolar disorder. Major depressive disorder (MDD) is believed to affect about a third of people with kleptomania.

Other impulse-control disorders co-occur in 20 to 45 percent of those suffering from kleptomania. It’s believed by some mental health experts that nearly two-thirds of people with kleptomania also suffer from an eating disorder. Many also abuse alcohol or substances and due to their kleptomania there can be anxiety. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and kleptomania have similar traits.

Telling lies is often a major part of kleptomania. This is to avoid getting caught stealing or because it is so obvious who has stolen something the person with kleptomania will attempt to lie their way out of it.

Dishonesty can also play a part in many kleptomaniac’s lives as they discover it gets them attention, and is another distraction for the negative feelings they have, including their shame and guilt from stealing. So intricate lies can be made up to get attention in the form of shock or sympathy.

What causes kleptomania?

What causes kleptomania

Theories from the 19th Century spoke of suppressed sexual desire causing people to seek some form of release through stealing. This has been discounted now by most experts. 

It might be linked to decreased levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that manages feelings. There could also be an imbalance in the brain’s opioid system, that makes it difficult to resist urges. Research into these theories about chemical differences is ongoing.

Other mental health experts see a connection with addiction. That is when someone does something to mask or numb pain and create a general distraction from that pain. An addict can be defined as someone who is doing something that’s detrimental to them and/or those around them, but who seems unable to stop and stay stopped from doing it.

What help is there for kleptomania?

What help is there for kleptomania

Most people with kleptomania will not seek help as even if they are aware they need help, they will be too ashamed to seek it. As well, many fear there will be repercussions, such as having to admit to family and friends what they’ve been doing, pay back large amounts or replace things. Or face a fine or even prison sentence.

So in instances when help is given, kleptomania has rarely been the presenting problem. This is why kleptomania might be a bigger problem than the statistics show.

Those who are diagnosed with kleptomania are often first seeing help for another mental health condition that’s affecting them. There are treatment methods that can help someone with kleptomania, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Contact our friendly experienced team of professionals to see how we can help you or someone you know – starting today.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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