What Is Kleptomania And What Can You Do To Treat It?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Kleptomania is a rare mental health disorder that’s characterized by the impulse to shoplift or steal items, typically when they’re not needed or when one can afford to buy them instead. It’s an impulse control disorder, according to the DSM-5. 

Symptoms can be managed with the help of a mental health professional, which is important as this disorder can have significant negative impacts on the individual and those around them if left untreated. Read on to learn more about kleptomania and its symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

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What is kleptomania?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the DSM-V, “kleptomania is exceedingly rare, whereas shoplifting is relatively common.” The main feature of kleptomania is repeatedly acting on impulses to steal items even though they’re not needed. An individual with kleptomania struggles to resist these urges, hence why it’s characterized as an impulse control disorder. 

Theories suggest that it’s different from those without this mental health disorder who may shoplift because of need, boredom, or (in the case of mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder) for a thrill during a manic episode. 

Episodes of kleptomania generally happen suddenly and without planning. Once a person with kleptomania steals, they often experience pleasurable feelings like relief and other positive emotions related to naturally occurring brain chemicals known as endorphins. 

However, the individual may experience some of the following things after these initial experiences dissipate and they reflect on the act of stealing: 

  • Feeling terrible

  • Guilt 

  • Emotional pain

  • Embarrassment

  • Shame

  • Remorse

Although kleptomania is rare, it's a serious disorder that may cause a great deal of harm to the individual who experiences it, as well as to their friends, family, and even society at large. Mental health providers recommend seeking treatment when compulsive stealing begins or as soon as the recurrent failure to control the urge to steal is recognized. Consequences could result if the impulse isn't curbed, controlled, or otherwise managed.

Potential consequences for someone with impulse control disorders like kleptomania

Acting on kleptomaniac impulses can result in various consequences, including legal repercussions. If caught, an individual could be banned from a store or other establishment and experience a sense of potentially public embarrassment. In more extreme cases, they could receive a fine or even jail time. 

The behavior associated with this disorder can also negatively impact a person’s relationships. Family and friends may choose not to associate with the individual because of their behavior, and/or the individual could choose to self-isolate due to shame around their condition. All of these potential consequences could also take a toll on the person’s mental health.


Signs and clinical characteristics of kleptomania

The manifestation of kleptomania often takes the form of a cycle of feelings and urges. The kleptomania cycle features: 

  1. People may initially experience the powerful urge to steal an item that’s not needed

  2. A strong sense of anxiety and tension may build leading up to the theft

  3. Individuals may experience relief or pleasure during or immediately after the theft

  4. After that, they may experience guilt, shame, embarrassment, remorse, or fear of consequences

  5. Eventually, the individual experiences a powerful urge to steal again

Again, an individual with kleptomania typically doesn’t steal because they can’t afford to buy the items; instead, the behavior happens because of a strong, nearly irresistible impulse. This urge to steal can occur at any time and may cause them to take things from public places or even from friends and family—which can lead to further rejection and isolation. 

Note that the impulse to steal is usually spontaneous in someone with kleptomania, meaning that the individual typically doesn’t plan ahead for it or have help in carrying it out. Afterward, it’s not uncommon to simply stash the items away rather than using them. An individual may also choose to give the items away, donate them, or secretly attempt to return them to where they were stolen from in an attempt to lessen the guilt they may feel.

Causes of and risk factors for kleptomania

Kleptomania is a rare disorder, and its causes are not fully understood. It’s suspected that it may be related to a chemical imbalance in the brain, traumatic events from childhood, and/or genetic factors. The majority of those diagnosed with kleptomania are women, and the behavior often first manifests in the teenage years. 

It’s not uncommon for this condition to be comorbid with other mental health conditions, such as:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety 

  • Substance use disorders*

  • Eating disorders* 

  • Other impulse control disorders like online shopping addiction 

  • Antisocial personality disorder 

Kleptomania risk factors are not fully understood, but it may also be linked to psychosexual conditions like sexual repression. 

Treatment for kleptomania

Research suggests that subtypes of this rare disorder may exist, with some presenting more like a mood disorder while others present more similarly to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). That’s why it’s helpful to seek medical advice and meet with a mental health professional – these are typically the initial courses of action recommended to begin treating kleptomania. 

A mental health professional can evaluate the individual and suggest an appropriate course of treatment for their unique situation. Psychotherapy and/or medication are commonly suggested methods of treatment for individuals who experience kleptomania.

For example, medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) might help control moods and improve behavioral self-control. They’re often used in combination treatment strategies designed for behavior prevention and reformation. 

Connecting with a mental health professional

Mental health disorders involving compulsions can significantly impact one’s daily functioning and overall mental health. Kleptomania in particular can have severe consequences—including legal ones—which means that seeking the appropriate treatment can be important. Meeting with a mental health professional in person or online can be a helpful first step. 

Are you struggling to control your compulsive behaviors?

Those who are interested in traditional in-person therapy can search for a provider in their local area. Those who are interested in trying virtual therapy might consider an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Through this service, you can get matched with a licensed therapist in a matter of days who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits in many cases, so those who find attending therapy from the comfort of home or who are interested in its relative cost-effectiveness may choose to explore a virtual option.


Kleptomania is a rare but serious mental illness that involves a compulsive need to steal items from stores or from other people. Those who suspect they may be experiencing this or another mental health condition may benefit from seeking the support of a mental health professional.
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