Compulsive Hoarding

November 23rd, 2009 | Sources: Wall Street Journal

Most of us tend to accumulate stuff of one sort or another, and many of our closets and drawers are hopelessly cluttered. But that’s not the same thing as compulsive hoarding, a psychological affliction that some experts estimate affects nearly 2% of the population.

CompulsiveHoardingThe homes of compulsive hoarders are stuffed with rotten food and sundry what-have-yous that bury sofas, beds, bathtubs and sinks and block doors and hallways.

Their possessions are disorganized, their bills are frequently unpaid (in part because they are lost in the pile) and their household utilities frequently are cut off as a result…an outcome that exacerbates the squalor.

You may even know a hoarder. “Attorneys, surgeons, business executives—some very bright and successful people have this problem,” according to San Francisco psychologist Michael Tompkins, who has written a book on the subject.

In some hoarders, the behavior is thought to be a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In others, the underlying condition appears to be dementia, ADD, PTSD or depression. In still others, the loss of a family member or a job triggers the behavior.

Some hoarders focus their attention on household pets, and cases have been reporting involving 1,000 or more in one home. The hoarders don’t notice the animals are filthy or malnourished, and believe they’re saving the critters from something worse.

What can be done to help such people? Experts say it can be profoundly harmful to forcibly clean up the mess. Hoarders perceive this to be a violation and are bound to repeat the behavior. Better to rely on patience and understanding. 

Professional organizers can help, as can antidepressants and behavioral therapy, but all of these are hit-or-miss at best.

As a last resort, Tompkins recommends “harm reduction” strategies: accept that the behavior will continue and minimize the danger it presents by keeping stairways and doors clear and moving flammable objects from space heaters and stoves.


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