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Health & Fitness

Biological cycles affect behaviour

Can periods push a woman to steal? FILE PHOTO | NMG
Can periods push a woman to steal? FILE PHOTO | NMG 

“I recently watched a news item on one of the international channels where a lady narrated how she steals every time she gets her monthly periods. How does this behaviour come about? Is it hormonal?”

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Your question goes to the fundamentals of the practice of mental health. In a sense, you are asking, “To what extent is biology responsible for the way we behave”. In the case of the woman in question, you seek to understand how a clearly biological event (monthly cycle) can be responsible for what is clearly a behaviour event which one should have some control over (stealing).

Many years ago, a very strange condition was brought to my attention (in the UK as a student). An increasing number of middle-aged women were being brought to us for examination before they were taken to court for trial.

The case of one woman stood out in my mind to this day. She was in her mid 50s and had, for the third time that month been caught red-handed having stolen some very low value items at the local supermarket.

In the first instance, she had picked a sweater which she hid under her winter jacket. The second time, it was a pair of sandals that were not even her size, and in the event that brought her to us, she had stolen a blouse virtually in full view of the shop attendant. The first two events of “shoplifting” had attracted stern warning; the first one by the shop, the second by the Police. The third one attracted a charge of shoplifting (not a medical condition these days) and not clearly defined by law either. All the same, we as the first line doctors (in Psychiatry) were required to prepare reports for the court.

A number of things emerged during the period of evaluation. The first was that this lady was stealing “for no reason”. Her husband had died two years earlier and had left her and her children a small fortune he had inherited from his family. This was a case of a rich woman stealing small things. The second thing that became clear was that she was stealing items she did not need. She had, at home (it turned) many items of the exact type that she was caught stealing. These two things did not make sense. Further investigations were required to solve the mystery.

A closer examination revealed that soon after the death of her husband, her son who had lived near her took a job in a different city and could no longer visit her as often as he used to. Her daughter moved in with a new boyfriend and was deeply in love with little time for anything else. Her only sister had fallen and broken her hip and could no longer take afternoon walks with her. Life was hell on earth. She was lonely.

She spent increasing hours in malls looking around with nothing in particular to buy. One day she saw a sign in the shop “shoplifters will be prosecuted”. She read the sign to mean, “Attention will be paid to shoplifters”. That meant that from being a nobody in the shop, attention would be paid to her. She was right. When she was arrested, the police talked to her and escorted her to big doctors and to important places. Her days were no longer boring. An element of suspense had replaced a sense of certain boredom. Adventure was in the air.

On further examination, it was evident that this woman was suffering from a depressive illness. She felt sad and hopeless. Life for her was no longer worth living. She felt so useless and worthless that she had a “need” to be punished. She felt she deserved to be in jail. She stole to escape boredom and to find punishment she felt she deserved. Once the depression was treated, she had no desire to be punished. The desire to steal also vanished.

This, however, was an old woman who did not go through monthly menstrual cycles. So, what is the link between Premenstrual Dysphonic Disorder and behaviour (including shoplifting)?

That Premenstrual Syndrome is as real as daylight is known to most women. That it can be severe and sometimes debilitating is well known to five per cent of all women. That it can present with mood swings, irritability, depression, temper tantrums is known to these women, their spouses, friends and in some cases neighbours.

The behaviour changes associated with the monthly cycle for some women can include extreme depression and despair that could include shoplifting. The programme you heard may after all have been right.

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