Hoarding, also known as compulsive hoarding or hoarding disorder, is a disorder whereby a person feels an extreme attachment to a large amount of items, even if they are worthless or of little value.
A compulsive hoarder tends to be unwilling or unable to get rid of the objects and will experience strong feelings of distress at the prospect of doing so.
Compulsive hoarding is associated with a range of problems, including social isolation, poor mental health, risks to physical health, as well as fire risks to property.
Most of us accumulate varying amounts of ‘stuff’. It’s common because we live in a consumerist society where mass produced products are often cheap and easy to come by.
Sure, some of us tend to thrive off order and minimalism (perhaps even being called a ‘neat freak’) while others tend to be messier. However, for the majority of people, accumulating items is not something that in itself causes major problems in life.
Chronic hoarding is when a person’s attachment to physical objects is such that it actually interferes with their life and their wellbeing.
The homes of people living with a hoarding disorder tend to be characterised by the following features:
- Parts or all of their house, car or office may be so cluttered that they are difficult to access or are even unusable.
- A substantial volume of the hoarded items may have little or no value (e.g. old newspapers, worn out clothes, containers, etc).
- The amount of clutter may present either a fire risk, or even health risk due to rotting food, animal droppings or pests.
The lives of compulsive hoarders, like their homes, are often characterised by common features:
- Their quality of life is significantly and adversely affected by the volume of objects in their homes.
- They may experience difficulty in sorting or organising things.
- They have a very strong attachment to the items and are likely resist removing them, reacting with distress, anger or avoidant behaviour.
- They may be ashamed or embarrassed by their behaviour, feel overwhelmed by the volume of clutter, or may avoid social contact or inviting people into their homes because of it.
- They may often lose or have difficulty finding important documents or items in the clutter.
- They may feel compelled to accept or bring in to the house items that are free or cheaply acquired.
Compulsive hoarding and wellbeing
Chronic hoarding is associated with an increased risk of physical health problems or even injury and death. This can be due to an increased fire risk or, in some cases, a risk to the building structure. Pests, vermin and unsanitary conditions can also pose a health risk, especially if the person engages in animal hoarding (keeping a large number of domestic animals without the capacity to properly care for them).
Chronic hoarding can significantly affect wellbeing and mental health. Chronic hoarders usually live with some level of anxiety and tend to experience strong feelings of distress when getting rid of objects that they genuinely believe hold value — even when those objects appear worthless to outsiders.
The condition is also associated with a number of mental disorders like obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder, and depression.
It is common for chronic hoarders to have difficult or estranged relationships with family members, friends and neighbours. Their condition may even result in trouble with local authorities and councils, as well as (in the event of animal hoarding) animal welfare organisations. Financial problems are also common among hoarders.
There is no single identified cause behind chronic hoarding. The behaviour manifest in a person’s early or pre-teen years and is usually a life-long condition. Factors that may contribute to hoarding behaviour include trauma and loss, a pre-disposition to mental illness (such as obsessive compulsive disorder) or possibly even genetic factors.
Chronic hoarding is a complex condition that often requires ongoing care. Medication may sometimes be prescribed by a medical professional although counselling and a range of therapies are most common. Successful treatment for compulsive hoarding will usually be most effective when combined with other life-style changes, such as agreed on decluttering by family or a professional organiser, adoption of mindfulness, ongoing social contact, and so on.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.