Hoarding has been the subject of popular reality TV shows, but it’s a serious disorder that threatens people’s safety and can even land them on the streets. UBC psychologist Sheila Woody offers insight into why people hoard, and how we can find compassionate ways to help them and their loved ones cope.
Why study hoarding?
People who hoard risk losing their housing, and that makes it a really important problem. My research is trying to understand how people who hoard make decisions about their possessions. There’s certainly an emotional component to hoarding, but it may also involve memory or attention in relation to possessions.
Are certain people more prone to developing hoarding issues?
Hoarding tends to run in families, and some researchers are looking into whether there is a genetic link. There is also some social learning that happens in families as well.
One study has suggested that hoarding is more prevalent in lower-income individuals. That’s also true of quite a few other mental disorders, and it’s not clear whether people have lower incomes because of their emotional and behavioural problems or vice versa. It’s also a little easier to fill up your space if you live in a smaller home.
How common is hoarding and excessive clutter?
Studies in western Europe and the U.S. suggest that the prevalence is between two and six per cent. A recent study of ours looked at excessive clutter in single room occupancy (SRO) units in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). We estimated that seven per cent had at least moderate levels of impairment in the use of the room because of the amount of stuff.
Hoarding can make it difficult for property maintenance. If there is a large volume of stuff in the home it can be difficult to tell if there are water leaks in walls and to eradicate pests such as mice, rats, cockroaches and bed bugs. It’s very important to know what kind of problems exist in those units and provide enough supports to tenants so that they don’t end up on the street.
What can be done to help?
Our research is trying to find out. Often people are helped by family members, but it can be very, very destructive if family members throw away a person’s belongings without their knowledge or cooperation. It’s more helpful to take a harm-reduction approach. A well-meaning friend or family member likely can’t eliminate the hoarding problem, but they can improve safety by ensuring exits are clear and keeping fire risks down.
It’s important to remember that, for people who hoard, their possessions mean as much to them as your possessions mean to you or mine mean to me. It’s just that they have a lot of them.
“How much of too much? What inspections data say about residential clutter as a housing problem” (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673037.2015.1094567) appears online in Housing Studies.
Contact Sheila Woody’s lab at 604.822.8025 to take part in a study on hoarding.