Understanding Hoarding

Understanding Hoarding

Paul Knoll is the director of the Recovery Center at Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center

Paul Knoll is the director of the Recovery Center at Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center

By: Paul R. Knoll, PhD, LMHC, CAP

Have you ever run into someone who seems to keep everything and can never get rid of it? They likely have multiple collections of items, but could easily be keeping stacks of mail, newspapers or magazines, or even garbage! If you’ve been watching American Pickers on TV, this might seem to be an interesting way to save memorabilia and antiques for generations. And now they could be worth a small fortune! But there are some downsides to this compulsive behavior.

Mental health specialists are calling this compulsive hoarding. People who hoard might also have limited contact with other people. In addition to inanimate objects, they may “collect” dozens of stray animals, and reach a point where they are unable to take care of them. Research is saying there are up to 1.2 million people in the USA who suffer from this compulsive behavior. The typical age when this starts is 50 years old.

Why does this behavior happen? Scientists are still trying to figure out where this problem falls in the nature vs. nurture debate. In other words, is compulsive hoarding  genetically-related, or a learned behavior? There are some known risk factors. Fascinatingly, this behavior might first occur as early as age 13, and can be seen in teenagers keeping outdated school papers or broken toys. About 85 percent of individuals with a hoarding problem have family members who have had a similar problem A stressful event can trigger this behavior as well.  The death of a loved one, or living through a traumatic even such as an economic hardship (e.g. The Great Depression) or war (e.g. WWII) could be causative factors. Other individuals have started hoarding after losing their home in a natural disaster such as a hurricane.

Other factors might involve alcoholism or health issues such as a stroke or head injury. Hoarding could become a serious concern, increasing the risk of falls, fire or more subtle events such as increased social isolation or reduced work performance.

Is there a treatment for hoarding? Yes!  Therapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which looks at current irrational beliefs, can help diffuse this behavior. Medications such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil or Cymbalta can be very helpful in both reducing depression and many of the hoarding behaviors.

There are also steps a person can take on their own to help themselves heal. Starting a moderate exercise program and eating more nutritious food are simple acts of self care that can make a difference in day to day outlook.  Getting involved with community activities, from garden clubs to community organizations such as the Senior Center, or participating in a church event could help someone to be more socially connected. Allowing pets to be adopted into good homes can also be a positive change for someone caring for more animals than they can manage.

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