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Impulse Control Disorders - Kleptomania

Updated on July 18, 2017

Kleptomania is the next type of impulse control disorder that we’ll be looking at and it is not limited to stealing items of value. In fact, it is the exact opposite and the impulse to steal is more commonly related to or associated to items of little or no commercial value. It is a need to steal regardless of prevailing or underlying economic conditions. In the United States alone there are over 1 million kleptomaniacs.

The ability to distinguish between valuable items and non-valuable items can sometimes be a determining factor in establishing whether a person suffers from kleptomania or otherwise. For example, someone who only steals jewelry is highly unlikely to be suffering from kleptomania.

Kleptomaniacs are not motivated by a need or a desire to acquire a specific item or to obtain some form of monetary gain from the sale of the stolen items. They are motivated instead by an inherent need to steal. The act of stealing is more important than what is stolen.

Kleptomania is a repetitive cycle. Its starts with an urge or an impulse to steal that quickly escalates or festers into a need or a desire that is beyond control.

As the urge or impulse gets stronger the tension builds up inside until it boils over and culminates in the theft of an item. In most instances these are small items that can be hidden in the clothes the kleptomaniac has on or slid between other purchases.

Once the act of stealing has been completed i.e. the kleptomaniac has acquired what he or she has set his or her mind on, there is a sense of relief and the tension is released. The kleptomaniac can then return, temporarily at least, to his or her normal self.

The sense of relief however is short lived and it is followed by a feeling or shame, remorse or embarrassment coupled with the additional fear of being arrested.

Kleptomaniacs are not people who think that they are above the law. To the contrary they are often afraid of being arrested and this sometimes tends to play on their self-esteem. That fear however is temporary and lasts for only as long as there is another overwhelming urge to steal and the cycle begins all over again.

The causes of kleptomania have not yet been fully established or determined but according to some experts it is caused by chemical changes in the brain that are possibly serotonin related.

Serotonin is a chemical that helps control moods and emotions. Low levels of serotonin are common in people who suffer from impulse control disorders. It could also be caused by an imbalance in the brain’s opioid (substances that produce morphine-like effects) system which makes it more difficult for the brain to resist urges and it may also release another neurochemical, dopamine, which causes pleasurable feelings or happiness.

Kleptomania can sometimes co-exist with other mental disorders like depression, social phobia, panic attacks, anorexia (a potentially life threatening eating disorder) and bulimia (another potentially life threatening eating disorder).

The most common offense associated with kleptomania is shoplifting or retail fraud and it is considered and regarded as a serious offense.

It includes altering price tags, removing security tags or other theft prevention mechanisms, secreting an item while still in the store for example putting it in your purse or hiding it in a coat pocket, removing it from its package or concealing it in other merchandise. It also includes eating an item lifted off the shelves without paying for it while strolling or walking along the aisles.

Statically nearly 10% of US citizens have tried shoplifting at one time or another and that just tells us how common it is. Nonetheless it is a serious offense and even first time offenders can get themselves a criminal record.

Kleptomania is an enigmatic condition and it is among the very few psychiatric disorders in which crime is medicalized and used as a legal defense. The scientific literature on kleptomania is scarce. The Swiss physician Mathey who worked with the “insane” wrote of “a unique madness characterized by the tendency to steal without motive and without necessity.

It provides an interesting example in the study of insanity in that the disorder could lead to enough impairment to qualify for an insanity defense under a volitional or the irresistible impulse test (which considers an individual’s ability to control his or her actions) but arguably not under a cognitive test for insanity (which considers an individual’s capacity to decide if his or her actions were right).

The irresistible impulse test was first introduced in the case of Commonwealth vs Shaw (1844). "If then it is proved, to the satisfaction of the jury, that the mind of the accused was in a diseased and unsound state, the question will be, whether the disease existed to so high a degree, that for the time being it overwhelmed the reason, conscience, and judgement, and whether the prisoner…acted from an irresistible and in-controllable impulse. If so, then the act was not the act of a voluntary agent, but the involuntary act of the body, without the concurrence of a mind directing it.”

A cognitive test for insanity tests the defendant’s ability to decide or determine if his or her conduct was wrong - “It is an affirmative defense under any Federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense (The federal insanity defense statute, 18 U.S.C.S. § 17(a)).

© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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