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The Science Behind Kleptomania

Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder characterised by recurrent episodes of compulsive stealing. This condition, usually kept quiet by the patient unless a legal mandate for treatment is ordered after repeated shoplifting, means they are brought to the attention of medical staff.


Gloucester has banned a kleptomaniac from every retail area of the county because of a £4,000 shoplifting spree in October, the BBC reported.


Magistrates ordered that Lisa Dalby attend 15 rehabilitation days and mental health treatment for her condition.


Her defence said: "Dalby has been diagnosed with kleptomania and she manages her urges quite well most of the time. But, when she is mentally unwell, she is unable to control this illness, and this was the case for her recent offending.”


Mary McGahey, from west Belfast, was jailed with 70 convictions for stealing. While a report said she suffered from kleptomania, the judge said that would not be “much consolation” to those affected by her crimes.


Similarly, to Dalby’s case, McGahey’s defence lawyer said: “McGahey had a number of psychological issues that have been under investigation.”


Kleptomania has historically been viewed from a psychodynamic perspective, with the main treatment being psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is a talking approach to treating mental health issues.


More recently, attempts to understand kleptomania from a neuropsychiatric viewpoint have found links between the condition and mood disorders, addictive behaviours, and brain injuries.


A study involving 20 kleptomania patients found a high association with major depression and, to a lesser extent, anxiety and eating disorders. All the patients in the study had a lifetime diagnosis of depression; 16 had a lifetime diagnosis of an anxiety disorder; and 12 had a lifetime diagnosis of an eating disorder.


While the exact causes of kleptomania are not known, it could link to problems with serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate moods. Lower levels of serotonin are often found in people who are prone to impulsivity. Stealing could also release dopamine for some people, which causes pleasurable feelings and encourages them to continue to steal.


Psychoanalytic theories also link compulsive stealing to childhood trauma, as stealing could be a way to attempt to repossess a perceived loss from childhood.


The National Library of Medicine notes how it is essential to “approach kleptomania in a non-judgemental manner and to reinforce confidentiality due to patients’ fear of legal consequences.” The legal consequences make the disorder particularly difficult to speak about.


Studies have shown that sufferers can expect a reduction and even remission of symptoms with a combination of psychotherapy and psychopharmacology.


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