Hoarding illo

To find out more on compulsive hoarding and to find local resources, visit the International OCD Foundation.

As many as one in 20 people have serious hoarding problems, according to the International OCD Foundation. TV shows such as A&E’s Hoarders can reinforce the misconception that getting the clutter out of the house completely cures a hoarder, and that is far from the truth, say licensed clinical social worker Elizabeth Orns and social worker and therapist Candice Kundert.

To better understand compulsive hoarding and how to help those with the disorder, Orns and Kundert, who are both based in Columbia, provide some insight into the disorder and steps toward improvement.

What is compulsive hoarding?

Compulsive hoarding disorder is when someone accumulates a lot of items that have little to no value to others. “Most people who do this, I find it, are in a lot of pain,” Kundert says. For some, compulsive hoarding can be concurrent with anxiety or depression. It doesn’t happen overnight. A hoarder starts thinking, “if I let this go, I might need it someday,” and clutter slowly piles up around the house, Orns says.

To an outsider who doesn’t see the home of a hoarder, the disorder can be difficult to identify. Clutter that makes it hard to move through someone’s home is a sign of hoarding.

Do all hoarders keep similar items?

Items vary depending on the root of the problem. If they were neglected in the past, children might hoard food in fear of having nothing to eat. Adults often hoard newspapers, old containers, clothes or anything else that traditionally has no value but that they have built an attachment to.

Why is it hard to part with the items?

Fear. An underlying cause often leads hoarders to feel like a part of themselves is leaving once they build an emotional attachment to those items, Orns says.

What are the repercussions?

Hoarding often makes it impossible to host guests, and never having company can lead to a lack of socialization and a lower quality of life. The house can become a fire and safety hazard, and hygiene and eating habits can be affected if the bathroom or kitchen are inaccessible. Compulsive hoarding can also lead to homelessness due to evictions.

Are hoarding and obsessive-compulsive disorder related?

Yes. They are both obsessive disorders. It’s a stereotype that people who have OCD keep their houses pristine. “Sometimes that’s true, but you can also have OCD and be afraid to let anything go or make a decision,” Kundert says. Many people with OCD are not hoarders, but some hoarders also have OCD. The two diagnoses are in the same family.

Is there a cure for hoarding?

The short answer is no. However, there are steps and treatments that can help. Counseling is one option. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” Orns says. Medications can help if the disorder is attached to anxiety or depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy or clinical hypnosis are other treatments that might help, Kundert says.

How can I help a hoarding friend or family member de-clutter?

Start small. Let the person know your concerns, and try to help them talk to somebody about the root of the problem. You can begin with a corner of the room and talk through the objects your friend should get rid of. Ask questions to help him or her let go of items: Have you used this in the past year? Does this really give you pleasure, or is it just something sitting here? You are treating the person, not the home, Orns says. 

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