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Causes, symptoms and management of kleptomania

Kleptomania is categorised as an impulse control issue by experts. It can frequently be treated with medicine, treatment, or both. Picture from Pexels

Kleptomania is categorised as an impulse control issue by experts. It can frequently be treated with medicine, treatment, or both. Picture from Pexels

Published Mar 3, 2023


A person with kleptomania experiences an overwhelming, uncontrollable need to steal items, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Individuals with this disease are aware that stealing is immoral and might result in punishment, yet they are unable to stop.

Kleptomaniacs don't steal because they lack self-control, willpower, or other virtues.

Rather, it is a medical condition where a person is unable to control their want to steal. People with kleptomania frequently experience guilt, humiliation, or stress as a result of their theft.

Many people make an effort to make up for this by returning goods, giving them to charities, or paying for them later.

Who is impacted by kleptomania the most?

Kleptomania is three times more prevalent among women and those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) than in males and those who were designated male at birth (AMAB).

According to Mayo Clinic studies, it may affect persons of practically all ages, with instances being detected in patients as young as 4 and as old as 77.

How does the human body respond to kleptomania?

Your brain's many areas are connected by a complicated network, making it resemble an extraordinarily sophisticated computer.

Your brain employs these circuits, which are connections, to assist in idea formation and action conversion.

According to the Mayo Clinic, your brain develops a new circuit each time you learn anything new.

Your brain develops a circuit that prevents you from doing what you have learnt to avoid. Your survival and well-being depend on your ability to inhibit.

They also assist you in avoiding actions or remarks that you know other people might find offensive in social settings.

"Kleptomaniacs are aware that stealing is bad and should never be done. They are aware of this, yet still can't stop themselves. Inhibition doesn't function well for them. Also, they aren't discouraged by the penalties for theft, such as imprisonment or jail time, claims psychiatrist Dr Ravi Govender.

Causes and symptoms

The primary sign of kleptomania is an uncontrollable drive or compulsion to steal things or stuff. Dr Govender claims that frequently entails one or more of the following:

Neither necessary nor worth are factors in the theft of commodities.

Before stealing, a person experiences stress or anticipation, which is swiftly followed by feelings of joy, relief, or other pleasant feelings.

As the pleasant feelings pass, the majority of kleptomaniacs experience remorse, humiliation, or regret.

Some individuals discard stolen goods, give them to others, or give them to charities. Less frequently, someone will stockpile stolen goods, covertly give them back, or give them back and pay for them.

Kleptomaniacs steal unintentionally and by themselves. The majority of persons with kleptomania who are married hide it from their partner.

How does kleptomania start?

Kleptomania has no known cause, according to experts. Evidence does, however, point to a few potential reasons.

Variations in brain architecture

Brain variations, particularly in regions that govern impulse control and inhibitions, are more prevalent in those with kleptomania. These variations could point to fewer or weaker connections in the regions of their brains that regulate inhibition.

Changes in brain chemistry

There have been instances where persons who had been taking drugs that affected their brain's neurotransmitters began to develop kleptomania. These instances are uncommon, thus additional research is needed to determine why they occur.

As a sign of other mental health issues

Kleptomania is categorised by some authorities as a symptom rather than a disease. People with kleptomania frequently also suffer from other mental health conditions, particularly anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addictions, and drug use disorders. They are more likely to commit suicide and self-harm.


Genetics experts are unsure if kleptomania may be inherited or if a family history increases your chance of developing it. There isn't conclusive proof that kleptomania is inherited, despite the fact that those who have it frequently have a family history of other mental health issues, including anxiety, mood, and substance use problems.

Testing and diagnoses

There are five requirements that a person must satisfy in order for a healthcare professional to diagnose kleptomania, in accordance with the South African Federation for Mental Health and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition-TR:

  • Consistently failing to refrain from stealing, and the stolen goods weren't taken because someone required them or needed anything important to barter for money.
  • Tension or eagerness before committing a theft.
  • After stealing, experiencing happy feelings (like relief or pleasure) or becoming "high."
  • Stealing doesn't result from an emotional reaction (done out of retaliation or anger) and isn't caused by a delusion (a firmly held erroneous belief) or a hallucination.

There is no better explanation for the behaviour than another mental health problem, such as conduct disorder, manic behaviour, or antisocial personality disorder.

There are no diagnostic procedures of any type that can identify kleptomania. Nonetheless, medical professionals could advise testing to rule out other illnesses. According to Dr Governder, your healthcare practitioner is the ideal person to explain to you if they advise doing tests for your particular situation and why.

Management and therapy

There is no established method for treating kleptomania, and there is little data on the most effective therapies.

This is partially due to the fact that persons with kleptomania seldom seek therapy on their own, making it more difficult to investigate potential therapies.

The two major groups of therapies are as follows:


One of the first-line treatments is the use of opioid antagonists, which prevent the effects of opioid medicines. There is evidence to back up their efficacy.

These drugs prevent the pleasurable feelings that one experiences when stealing, which may help a person resist the impulse to steal. Antidepressants, seizure medicines, or lithium are some more potential treatments.


Also known as mental health treatment or behavioural therapy, this often entails assisting a person in comprehending the reasons behind their behaviour before assisting them in coming up with solutions to modify or stop the behaviour.

Kleptomania psychotherapy is available in a variety of settings, including hypnosis, group therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Dr Govender claims that kleptomania is a mental health problem that isn't always simple to identify.

Moreover, it frequently coexists with other mental health issues. Some of those other ailments are severe or raise your risk of suicide or self-harm. Because of these reasons, kleptomania should only be diagnosed and treated by a skilled, licensed healthcare professional.

Depending on the medicine you take, the sort of therapy you receive, and other factors, the time it takes for you to notice changes in your behaviour or how you feel might alter.

The greatest source of information regarding the time frame for your recovery, including when you should start seeing changes in how you feel, is your healthcare provider.

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.