Many of us hang on to treasures and memorabilia from the past, but our homes are not so overwhelmed with clutter that it becomes detrimental to our health and safety, let alone our sanity. Others are not so lucky. For some individuals, hoarding, or the obsessive compulsion to collect anything and everything – has become a danger to themselves and others. Often hoarding co-occurs with substance abuse, including alcohol, nicotine, prescription and illegal street drugs.

What is it?

Hoarding, or, more specifically, compulsive hoarding, is characterized by two parts. The first is the accumulation of things that have little or no value. The second is the inability to part with things that the hoarder has accumulated. Typically, hoarders pile up old newspapers, food cartons, cans, mail, lists, notes, clothes, garbage and other debris. There are also instances of animal hoarding, where an individual collects and houses dozens to hundreds of animals. Hoarding usually begins slowly, but builds over time. As the mountain of items increases, making passage through hallways, bedrooms, bathrooms, garages and other living areas more treacherous, the disorder progresses to a point of nearly no return.

Hoarders cannot, and will not, freely give up their possessions, however inconsequential they are, or how unsafe and unsanitary their environment has become. Without professional help, even if a cleanup crew comes in and removes the debris, clutter and detritus, the hoarder will just start to accumulate again until the problem reaches the same level of impending disaster.

Type of Disorder

Although not officially recognized as a distinct psychological disorder according to DSM-IV classifications, compulsive hoarding disorder is believed to be related to or interconnected with other disorders. These include bipolar disorder, social anxiety, and depression. Some patients who have anorexia nervosa, dementia, schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders may also exhibit signs of compulsive hoarding disorder. When compulsive hoarding disorder is seen in patients, it is most often in conjunction with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and, to a smaller extent, with attention-deficit-disorder (ADD). Compulsive hoarding disorder also may run in families.

Prevalence of the Disorder

But just how widespread is the disorder and what can be done about it? Hoarding is a serious problem for the individuals involved as well as their family members. It doesn’t discriminate according to age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, religion or any other differentiator. The fact that the elderly have more in the way of accumulation of possessions may only be due to the fact that they’ve had longer to squirrel things away. Some say that compulsive hoarders are mostly single, and that divorce often occurs when one spouse refuses to change. But this may only be speculation, as there are many instances of entire families exhibiting compulsive hoarding disorder, as well as many spouses who both exhibit the compulsion to collect things.

The cable station A&E has been airing a series Hoarders, which shows two case studies per program, each involving hoarders and their spouses/families. The series documents instances of hoarding, chronicling the conditions and the efforts of the hoarders and their families who have agreed to permit the filming in order to have the conditions cleaned up. Indeed, the producers of the show published a casting request on the Internet, looking for individuals willing to tell their stories, who were motivated to change by a crisis that caused by hoarding that required immediate attention, and were non-stereotypical cases. These individuals would need to sign a release, agree to appear on camera for 3 to 5 days, along with family members (who would also need to agree to appear on camera and sign appropriate releases). In return, the individuals would receive free services, such as mental health support, professional organizers, professional cleanup and/or junk removal services. According to the posting, the professionals are all experienced in treating the disorder and possess the training and credentials to do so.

Statistically, there are no good numbers as to the extent of compulsive hoarding. Some experts estimate the number at 1 percent of the population, while others say the disorder, or some variant of it, affects up to 2 million people in the United States. Certainly, when you tally up the affected family members of compulsive hoarders, the numbers increase exponentially.