Shoplifters and petty pilferers are giving kleptomania a bad name, say psychiatrists, who are increasingly coming across people who blame their crime on uncontrolled kleptomania to avoid criminal prosecution.
First, let's look at the data. Less than one in 20 shoplifters have kleptomania, which is defined as an impulse-control disorder - much like addictions -- usually accompanied with emotional or behavioural disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, bulimia, anorexia or substance abuse. Winona Ryder, the world's best known kleptomaniac, needed treatment for severe anxiety panic attacks.
Unlike shoplifters who filch things they want but don't want to pay for, or petty thieves who steal things that don't belong to them, kleptomaniacs pick up stuff because they can't help themselves. Theft, as opposed to kleptomania, is deliberate and often planned and is motivated by the usefulness of the object or its value.
Kleptomaniacs rarely set out to steal. They nick because they are unable to overcome a sudden irresistible urge to pilfer things they don't want or need. It's the act of stealing, not the object swiped, that gives kleptomaniacs a high that Freudian psychologists have described as "orgasmic". In most cases, the objects stolen are usually stashed away, never to be looked at or used. Some may even surreptitiously return them.
What's the problem?
The American Psychiatric Association's textbook tome, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), classifies kleptomania an impulse control disorder marked by people engaging in repetitive behaviours while being fully aware of the trouble it could get them in. Try as they may, they cannot fight the continuous and increasing craving to do things that they know they should not be doing.
Almost all kleptomaniacs experience mounting tension before the theft and gratification or relief after the deed is done. DSM-5 notes that the theft is not done to express anger or vengeance, or in response to a delusion or hallucination. Some kleptomaniacs are not even consciously aware that they are committing a theft until later.
Affected people may have "sporadic kleptomania" with brief episodes and long periods of remission; "episodic kleptomania" with protracted periods of theft followed by periods of remission; and "chronic kleptomania" with some degree of fluctuation. Adolescents and teenagers may swipe stuff on a dare or an act of rebellion, so a diagnosis should not be made unless associated behavioural problems are also present.
What makes them do it?
Though what causes of kleptomania is not yet fully understood, there is evidence linking it to imbalances in the naturally-occurring brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called serotonin, which helps regulate moods and emotions. Low levels of serotonin are common in people with depression and impulse-control problems.
As in addictions, the act of stealing triggers the release of another neurotransmitter dopamine in the minds of kleptomaniacs, which leads to feelings of pleasurable and reward.
Emotional stressors --such as an emotional or physical trauma -- -- may trigger the problem, but it almost always occurs with another mood or personality disorder. It is more common among women, with two in three kleptomaniacs being women.
Getting treated and moving on
It's difficult to overcome kleptomania on your own. Treatment typically involves medicines for depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder along with psychotherapy. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) - such as Some medications that are used for people diagnosed with kleptomania are fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, sertraline, lithium, trazodone and valproate -- used to treat depression help lower the highs associated with stealing.
One-on-one counselling and group therapy are also used to identify and deal with the underlying disorders contributing to the problem. These may also include behavioural therapy, traditional psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and family therapy. With therapy, the impulse to steal may occur less frequently and with less intensity or go away altogether over time.
There's some excitement over a new study released this week that found chewing gum helps you get rid of "earworms" -annoying songs repeatedly playing in your mind. The study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (http://bit.ly/1HD9CXw), showed that just the mechanical act of moving the jaw reduces the number of times you think about a song, as well as how often they "hear" that song playing in their minds.
Previous research shows that moving your jaw interferes with the short-term memory (http://1.usa.gov/1HCMQR7), which has given researchers hope that gum chewing could help block intrusive thoughts and help counter symptoms of impulse-control disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive and kleptomania.