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Compulsive hoarding means excessively collecting items that are of little or no value and not being able to throw them away, resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter.
It is considered to be a significant problem when:
People with hoarding difficulties often suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which may or may not be directly connected to their clutter problem. Hoarding is also often associated with anxiety and depression.
Compulsive hoarding is challenging to treat because many people who hoard don’t see it as a problem, or have little awareness of their disorder and how it's impacting on their life.
However, it’s really important to encourage a hoarder to seek help, as their obsession can not only cause loneliness and mental health problems, but poses a health and safety risk, too. If not tackled, it is a problem that will most likely never go away.
This page explains:
The reasons why someone becomes a hoarder are still not fully understood. However, the problem tends to persist because:
The person will also have unhelpful beliefs, such as:
Attempts to discard things often bring up very strong emotions that can feel overwhelming, so the hoarder tends to put off or avoid making decisions about what can be thrown out.
Often, many of the things kept are of little or no monetary value, and may be what most people would consider rubbish. The person may acquire several of the same items because they are unable to find what they need, or they may have stockpiled food or clothes "just in case".
A person is more likely to become a compulsive hoarder if:
A compulsive hoarder typically:
Some studies suggest that hoarding often starts in the teenage years (as early as 13 or 14), where broken toys or school papers may be collected. The hoarding then becomes worse with age.
Compulsive hoarding is a problem for several reasons.
Because of the amount of clutter, the person may not be able to use the rooms in their house for their intended purpose, or even be able to sit in a chair without having to move things.
In extreme cases the piles of clutter can become a fire risk, and can result in the hoarder tripping and falling. And because the home is virtually impossible to clean, living conditions tend to be very unhygienic and can lead to rodent or insect infestations, blocked drains and other problems that may also affect neighbouring properties.
The hoarder is usually reluctant or unable to have visitors, or even allow tradesmen in to carry out essential repairs.
They may ignore the pleas of family and friends to get help, as they do not see it as a problem or cannot bring themselves to tackle it.
The hoarding literally takes over the person's life, causing their work performance, personal hygiene and social life to suffer.
If a member of your family or someone you know is a compulsive hoarder, try to persuade them to come with you to see a doctor. This will not be easy, as someone who compulsively hoards may not think they need help, so may not want to seek treatment.
Ask your doctor to refer you to your local community mental health team, which may have a health professional who specialises in OCD and is familiar with hoarding.
Reassure your loved one or friend that no-one is going to go into their home and throw everything out. You're just going to have a chat with the doctor about their hoarding, to see what can be done and what support is available to empower them to begin the process of decluttering.
It's generally not a good idea to call in the council or environmental health to clear the rubbish away, as it won't solve the problem and the clutter often quickly builds up again. However, if the problem is not addressed, local authorities may take legal action to ensure that the property is cleared.
Do not be tempted to get extra storage – this is only a quick fix, is costly, and does not address the problem. The problem is too much stuff, not too little space to keep it.
It's not easy to treat compulsive hoarding, even when the person is prepared to seek help, but compulsive hoarding can be overcome.
The main treatment for compulsive hoarding is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The therapist will help the person understand what makes it difficult to throw things away and the reasons why the clutter has built up. This will be combined with practical tasks and a plan to work on (see below). It is important that the person takes responsibility for clearing the clutter from their home. The therapist will support and encourage this.
A type of antidepressant – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – has also been shown to help some, but not all, compulsive hoarders.
CBT is a type of therapy that aims to help you manage your problems by changing how you think and act. It encourages you to talk about how you think about yourself, the world and other people, and how what you do affects your thoughts and feelings. By talking about these things, CBT can help you to change how you think (‘cognitive’) and what you do (‘behaviour’), which can help you feel better about life.
Regular sessions of CBT over a long period of time are usually necessary and should include some home-based sessions, working directly on the clutter. This requires motivation, commitment and patience, as it can take many months to achieve the treatment goal.
The goal is to improve the person's decision-making and organisational skills, help them overcome urges to save, and ultimately clear the clutter, room by room.
The therapist won't throw anything away, but will help guide and encourage the person to do so. The therapist can also help the person develop decision-making strategies, while identifying and challenging underlying beliefs that contribute to the hoarding problem.
The person gradually becomes better at throwing things away, learning that nothing terrible happens when they do so, and becomes better at organising items they insist on keeping.
They may also be encouraged to keep a daily log of what they have purchased, to monitor incoming clutter.
At the end of treatment, the person may not have cleared all their clutter but will have gained a better understanding of the problem. They will have a plan to help them continue to build on their successes and avoid slipping back into their old ways.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.