What is kleptomania? Because of the frequent misinformation, the clichés of television and movies and the stigmatization of those who are unaware of the seriousness of this disorder, kleptomania patients have been an easy target for decades , not only being the object of ridicule and prejudice but also of unfair legal battles against them.
This, over time, has only reaffirmed that there is a profound lack of knowledge about this disorder. That is why today, we have set out to debunk some of the most widespread myths about kleptomania .
What is kleptomania?
However, it is necessary to clarify from the outset exactly what this disease consists of. Kleptomania is classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (in its fourth edition) as a disorder belonging to the group of impulse control disorders and whose main characteristic is the recurrent difficulty in controlling impulses for stealing .
Kleptomaniacs often have an uncontrollable urge to steal things they don’t need. Key components for those with this disorder include recurring thoughts of intrusion, a sense of helplessness that pushes them to commit the theft, and a feeling of pressure release and some euphoria after the theft has been committed.
Diagnostic criteria for kleptomania
DSM-IV also provides us with the diagnostic criteria for this disease, among which are the following:
1. Usual difficulty to manage and control the impulses to commit theft even in objects and goods that are not indispensable for personal use or for their economic value.
2. Sense of uncertainty and tension in the moments before committing the theft.
3. Well-being, feeling of euphoria and success at the time of committing the theft.
4. Theft does not have an angry motivation nor is it a response to a delusional disorder or background hallucinations.
5. T heft is not explained by the presence of a dissociative disorder , an antisocial personality disorder or a manic episode.
People diagnosed with kleptomania often have other types of disorders that negatively influence their mood . The comorbidity of kleptomania is varied, but the most common disorders are: anxiety, eating related problems or also within the same impulse control group.
It is also important to clarify that kleptomaniacs are usually classified into three groups, these being the sporadic kleptomaniacs , among whom the time between theft and robbery occurs in very long intervals; the episodic kleptomaniacs , in which case the thefts are committed more frequently but in which there are certain periods of “rest”, and the chronic kleptomaniacs , who steal in a latent and continuous manner to the point in which this activity constitutes a severe problem for the person and interrupts his/her daily activities.
Among the myths most frequently associated with this disease and those who suffer from it are the following:
Myth 1: They take pleasure in stealing and are incapable of guilt
The kleptomaniac experiences a range of negative emotions and a certain amount of internal tension before stealing an object, so he feels that only stealing can alleviate this discomfort. While it is true that this feeling of tension relief is present after the act, the sensation is different from pleasure, because it is usually accompanied by a latent feeling of guilt after the act. In other words, the anxiety and internal tension (increased in the moments prior to the act) is mitigated through theft .
Myth 2: They’ll steal whenever they get the chance and are incurable
As mentioned above, the number of thefts that a person with this condition will commit will vary as the type of kleptomaniac that he or she is (episodic, sporadic or chronic). In addition, it is important to emphasize that kleptomaniacs only commit thefts in response to increased anxiety and tension, so it is false to believe that they are capable of stealing anything if they have the opportunity to do so. With regard to treatment, various therapies (especially behavioural) have shown very good results in mitigating pre-stealing anxiety and thereby eliminating the need to steal.
Myth 3: Kleptomaniacs’ thefts are escalating and they are professional thieves
When kleptomaniacs steal, they are only responding to an inner urge . That is why they do not share any characteristics with “common” thieves beyond the fact of stealing, so they are not able to premeditate or plan their thefts, they simply do it occasionally. For this same reason, their thefts do not escalate, such as those of career criminals who have gone through a criminal evolutionary process (e.g., they started out stealing a wallet, then robbed a store, then a bank, etc.). Kleptomaniacs don’t professionalize what they do, they simply do it. It is true that they will find the best opportunity to do so, but at no time is this intended to be their modus vivendi (the way they earn their living) since, for them, stealing does not bring any lucrative benefit.
Myth 5: They’re perfectly capable of controlling their desire to steal but they don’t want to
Completely false. Kleptomaniacs are able to understand the act of stealing is wrong , but they simply cannot control their need to steal things. For them it is just as necessary to commit the act of stealing as a gambler is to gamble. This is why there is sometimes debate about whether it should be classified as part of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Myth 6: They’re crazy/deviant/mentally ill
Not crazy, not alienated: are perfectly able to stand on their own two feet, as they have no delusional or paranoid characteristics , so they understand reality perfectly. Sometimes, it is true that the act of stealing can interfere with their daily activities (as in the case of chronic kleptomaniacs), but a correct treatment can redirect the situation and provide them with a completely normal life.
Differences between kleptomaniacs and common thieves
Below we frame some of the differences kleptomaniacs have in relation to common thieves.
1. While common thieves commit their acts out of conviction, the kleptomaniac responds to an inner impulse , so the latter does not commit his acts with free will.
2. Commonly, in thieves there are some mild psychopathic traits (e.g., need to immediately satisfy their drives, self-centeredness, perversity, etc.) while in kleptomaniacs there are no traits of some of the above characteristics.
3. Thieves generally seek to profit from the goods they steal; kleptomaniacs do not . Likewise, while common thieves steal the goods that they consider of greater value, kleptomaniacs are only motivated by the act of stealing itself, and do not make monetary value judgments on the goods they steal.
4. Within the distorted value scheme of a thief, what he does is right or “just” . A kleptomaniac, however, knows that what he is doing is not right but is very difficult for him to control.
5. The thief usually has no remorse (or more specifically he does, but mitigates this with intricate defense mechanisms) while the kleptomaniac, as soon as he consummates the act, is invaded by enormous amounts of guilt and anguish.
What therapies can help a kleptomaniac?
Current therapies that aim to diffuse the impulses to steal in kleptomaniacs may be pharmacological and/or behavioural. On many occasions, antidepressants are given with the aim of regulating the levels of serotonin released by the subject at the time of committing the act.
As we mentioned before, among the most effective psychotherapeutic works for kleptomaniacs are behavioural therapies with emphasis on the cognitive. This type of therapy achieves an adequate development in their daily activities. On the other hand, some psychoanalysts refer to the fact that the real causes of compulsive robbery are centered on unconsciously repressed discomforts during early childhood. It is also advised that those who suffer from this disorder share their experiences, sensations and thoughts with a third party, so that this trusted person exercises a “watchful” role.