Bess Myerson, Lindsay Lohan, Winona Ryder, Caroline Giuliani. These famous women made headlines for doing what few people would have expected of them—shoplifting. There are countless other women who regularly commit the same crime, but their names don’t show up in the headlines... just on the court dockets.
Why would someone who has enough money—or more than enough money—steal something? I spoke with psychiatrist Jon E. Grant, MD, JD, MPH, codirector of the University of Minnesota Impulse Control Disorders Clinic and coauthor of Stop Me Because I Can’t Stop Myself: Taking Control of Impulsive Behavior. While he would not comment on the mental health status of specific celebrities, he did describe a compulsive disorder called kleptomania, which is characterized by an inability to resist the impulse to steal.
The condition is often overlooked and misunderstood by mental health professionals. Many kleptomaniacs suffer in silence, wracked with guilt and fearful that admitting to their behavior would land them in jail. Dr. Grant said, "The vast majority of my patients come to me of their own volition, looking for someone who will take their problem seriously and treat it. Often they are very nervous, not realizing that mental health professionals have no obligation to divulge such information to the authorities."
Not everyone who shoplifts is a kleptomaniac, of course. Some shoplifters are adolescents who simply want to see if they can get away with a "five-finger discount"... others are people who cannot afford to buy necessities... and others are adults who choose to make a "career" of theft. But about 2% to 3% of shoplifters (or 0.7% of the population overall) meet the criteria for kleptomania, Dr. Grant estimated, with females outnumbering males two-to-one.
Often kleptomania begins in adolescence, though it can start later. Identifying the root cause is hard because research is limited. However, Dr. Grant did conduct a study examining kleptomaniacs’ relationships with their parents. For the most part, he said, kleptomaniacs did not report being verbally, physically or sexually abused but did feel emotionally neglected as children—the way you might if, having brought home a report card with straight As, your father said, "Nice. What’s for dinner?" According to Dr. Grant, this suggests that for some kleptomaniacs, stealing provides a means (albeit an unhealthy one) of feeling like they have accomplished something of note.
Experiences repeated impulses to steal. Most of us never even think about taking something that isn’t ours, but a kleptomaniac thinks about this much of the time.
Cannot resist that impulse. We’ve all picked up merchandise and thought, "I’d really like this, but I can’t afford it." So we put it back. The kleptomaniac cannot say no to that urge. "It’s reflective of an addictive behavior," Dr. Grant explained. "She says to herself, ‘I really want to take that and I just can’t stop myself.’"
Feels a buildup of tension prior to stealing—the kind of mounting pressure you might feel when anxiously awaiting the outcome of an important election. Stealing relieves the tension and restores calm temporarily... but that soon gives way to intense guilt and shame.
Takes pleasure in the act, not the object. Kleptomanics enjoy the challenge of stealing—generally they do not need or even want the item itself. Many compulsive shoplifters sneak the purloined merchandise out of the store and then just dump it or even donate it to charity.
Many kleptomaniacs also suffer from depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder or have a personal and/or family history of a substance use disorder. However, they generally do not exhibit antisocial behaviors, inappropriate anger or psychotic-like symptoms, and most do not commit other illegal acts.
There’s nothing fun or funny about being a kleptomaniac. One study reported that 64% of those afflicted had been apprehended... 23% had served jail time... 27% had been hospitalized for the disorder... and 18% had considered or attempted suicide due to distress associated with kleptomania.
What can you do if you suspect that someone you love (or you yourself) might be suffering from kleptomania? The following approaches can help, especially when used in combination, Dr. Grant noted. Options include...
Cognitive behavioral therapy. With this type of talk therapy, the patient is trained to recognize the irrational thinking behind her behavior... to practice techniques that desensitize her to unwanted impulses... and to replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. Referrals to practitioners: Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (www.abct.org).
Education and support. The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) is affiliated with Shoplifters Anonymous and guarantees strict confidentiality. Its educational course for shoplifters can be taken as an interactive on-line program or via mail in a home-study program. It helps shoplifters identify the thoughts and beliefs that lead to their behavior... examines the emotional rewards and damages of shoplifting... clarifies the financial impact and potential legal ramifications... and helps patients develop a personalized treatment plan. NASP also offers on-line support groups and professional coaching via telephone.
For information: Visit www.ShopliftingPrevention.org.
Medication. In a double-blind study by Dr. Grant, the majority of kleptomaniacs who took naltrexone (ReVia), a drug often used to reduce alcoholic cravings, reported a reduced urge to steal. In a small study from Tel Aviv University, topiramate (Topamax), currently used to treat seizures and eating disorders, showed promise for treating kleptomania. For patients with kleptomania plus depression or another mental disorder, medication, such as antidepressants, may be appropriate. Of course, drugs can have side effects, so patients on medication must work closely with their psychiatrists.
Bottom line: Kleptomania is not a moral weakness, Dr. Grant emphasized. Rather, it is a mental health problem—and as with other such disorders, sufferers can be and deserve to be helped.
Jon E. Grant, MD, JD, MPH, is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School and codirector of the University of Minnesota Impulse Control Disorders Clinic, both in Minneapolis. He is the coauthor of Stop Me Because I Can’t Stop Myself: Taking Control of Impulsive Behavior (McGraw-Hill). www.ImpulseControlDisorders.org