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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Help for Kleptomania

Q. This a very hard topic for me. I know I have a problem with stealing nominal things that I don't need or want. I have been doing this since I was a child and no one was aware. I come from an upper middle-class home where I never did without. I do get that high after I do it and I know it's wrong.

I especially have outbreaks after a stressful day to make me feel better. I recently got caught and I think this is a blessing. I need to do something about it now because I have children I am raising on my own which is very stressful. I feel the more I have the better I am. I can remember having this feeling in my childhood so maybe now it is just subconsciously there in my thoughts. I was trying to find a hot line to call or group to further educate myself. I am an educated person and I know this is a problem but not sure what direction to take. Can you help?

A. What you describe could be related to the condition called kleptomania, but without a thorough mental health evaluation, it's hard to know. In the official diagnostic classification of psychiatry (DSM-IV), kleptomania is considered an "impulse control disorder". Individuals with this condition typically take items that are of little monetary value or practical use. They often feel a sense of rising tension just before the theft, and some sense of pleasure or relief at the time of committing the theft.

By definition, the theft is not committed to express anger or vengeance and is not better accounted for by another psychiatric disorder, such as a manic episode or personality disorder. But some mental health professionals consider the term kleptomania inappropriate, and psychologist Dr. Will Cupchik prefers the term "atypical theft offender" to kleptomaniac. You may be interested in his book, "Why Honest People Shoplift or Commit Other Acts of Theft: Assessment and Treatment of 'Atypical Theft Offenders'".

While I can't endorse Dr. Cupchik's views, he believes that many atypical theft offenders (ATOs) do not fit the criteria for kleptomania. He argues that many ATO individuals do act from feelings of anger or vengeance, and that external stressors also play an important role. (You can learn more about Dr. Cupchik's views on www.canadalegal.com).

While all these theories may be of interest to you, I would strongly recommend that you seek a professional mental health evaluation, rather than a hot line or support group. Your statement that "the more I have, the better I am" suggests that self-esteem may be an important underlying issue for you--and that is certainly something you could explore in psychotherapy. I hope you are able to resolve this problem with time and effort.

February 2003

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