While it is always wrong to steal, most people who do so have logical reasons behind their actions. Typically, they want money or objects that they feel they need or that they think will make their lives better in some way. This is true for both habitual “professional” thieves and those who indulge in an occasional spot of shop-lifting.
However, there are also people who steal for no obvious reason at all, and who cannot justify their actions on any level, even to themselves. Often, they take apparently random objects that serve them no purpose and they frequently seem to have little or no inability to stop stealing, even from friends and family. They may find that they start to experience obsessive thinking patterns around the idea of stealing something and that the impulse grows until it can only be relieved by taking something. Over time, their behaviour can be reinforced as the kleptomaniac becomes increasingly adept at taking things, and a behavioural pattern develops. Gradually, stealing can become their default way of dealing with stress and negative triggers in the environment. The implications for their ability to function normally in society and to maintain a job and a friendship circle can be considerable.
Impulsive theft of this sort is known as kleptomania, and it is an impulse control disorder that is often comorbid with a range of other conditions, which can include alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, and which are sometimes associated with the body displaying inadequate serotonin regulation. Because kleptomania so often occurs together with other conditions, it can be tricky to provide a definitive diagnosis.
In order to give a diagnosis of kleptomania, a patient has to meet five criteria:
- They cannot resist the urge to steal things that they don’t need and that are not of economic value to them;
- They experience a sense of growing pressure to act before stealing;
- They experience a sense of relief after stealing;
- There is no logical reason for the theft, and they are not responding to a delusion;
- There is no better psychological or psychiatric reason for the episode of theft (such a behaviour or anti-social personality disorder).
After stealing, people who suffer from kleptomania often feel desperately guilty and confused. They know that what they are doing is wrong, but because they engage in stealing from a place of compulsion, they feel completely unable to stop. Often, they turn to other destructive behaviours, such as alcohol or substance abuse, or self-isolation, in a desperate attempt to manage their condition. They can develop serious problems with self-esteem, as they cannot understand why they do what they do, and why it is so difficult to stop.
Thankfully, kleptomania can be treated. Because it generally occurs together with one or more other disorders, the patient is typically treated for all of their issues. Various approaches, including cognitive behavioural therapy, can give very good results, sometimes together with a pharmaceutical approach that helps to reduce anxiety or stabilise mood.
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