The Psychology of Hoarding

19 June 2014 by
a garage completely filled with books

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Hoarding isn’t just about people with messy houses. It’s not about having a little too much clutter or dirt hanging around. It’s a real mental illness. This serious condition affects the lives of the hoarder, their family, and often friends and neighbors. Television shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alivehave helped to bring the truth of hoarding to light, informing while horrifying viewers.

Significant Hoarding Cases

Before TV camera poked into the lives of hoarders, they’ve been making news. The most famous hoarding case was the Collyer Brothers, who lived in NYC and were part of Manhattan’s elite crowd. They withdrew from society after their parents died, and Homer – who was blind and crippled – was taken care of by his brother, Langley. Neighbors called police in 1947 because of a smell coming from the property, and Homer was found dead. He was in the middle of literally tons of items, most of them junk.

A manhunt began for his brother Langley, who was nowhere to be found. The house was also cleared. Several weeks and 180 tons of garbage later, they found Langley’s body buried in the mess and mostly eaten by rats. He had apparently been crushed by piles of junk falling on him, and Homer died because his brother could no longer feed him. It was an incredibly tragic case, but it is not the only case where a person has died in their home because of their hoarding tendencies.

Another famous hoarder was the UK’s Edmund Trebus. Most of the junk in his home came from his desire to collect anything and everything about Elvis Presley, but also from raiding his neighbors’ trash. He grew vegetables in his garden, but saved them all in bags in his home, where they rotted away. The smell was so strong that the neighbors started complaining. He lived in a roomy Victorian Villa with five bedrooms, but was relegated to using only a small area on the floor because all of the rooms were full of all kinds of junk and bag after bag of decomposing vegetables.

What Makes a Hoarder

Hoarding is a mental illness, and is not the same as collecting. Many people have extensive collections, but they take care of these items, display them, and learn about them. They show them to others, and are proud of what they have. While these collections can take up significant levels of floor space, the collectors generally use proper storage options for keeping their collections contained. They may have a lot of money tied up in their collections, too, but they aren’t saving things just to save them. Collections have a purpose, and can often be very valuable.

In contrast to these collectors, hoarders often save anything and everything. Much of what they bring home is garbage, and they often can’t seem to throw anything away. Many hoarders have homes infested with bugs and rodents, and it’s not uncommon to find dead animals in their homes, too. If a pet suddenly goes missing, there’s no way to find it in all the piles and boxes of items and garbage. Trash and even human waste are often located in the houses of hoarders, making cleanup a biohazard issue that’s expensive, hard to handle, and honestly – just plain gross.

Help for Hoarding

Fortunately, for people who are pack rats, or people who want to get their lives under control based on how things they have, there are options. They can get help, both mentally and physically, to start correcting their hoarding behaviors. It’s not an easy road, and people trying to help can be met with a lot of resistance. The biggest problem is often getting a hoarder to throw anything away, even if it’s truly trash.

For items that actually do have value but that really need to be removed from the home so they can be auctioned off or sold, a self storage facility can be a good option. Storage can allow a person to employ an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality with numerous items, which can be disposed of later. This only works for items that really do get disposed of, though, and not things the person just wants to hang onto for a little while longer.

Local storage units should be used for the items that will be sold, not for storing stuff the hoarder wants. The goal is to significantly reduce how much “stuff” the hoarder keeps, and to begin working on healthier behaviors. For the interior of the hoarder’s home, there are also many ways to organize items that are important to keep. It’s easy to create extra storage in most homes with a little creativity, so you can make more room for the things that matter to you and still not have clutter.

Mental health care is important because the disorder is not accumulating too many things. It’s about why a person does that – which can’t be corrected just by organizing the space or getting rid of belongings and trash. All the self storage units in the world won’t “fix” the problem a hoarder has, and in some cases can only compound the problem because they just mean more space to put things in.

Some hoarders fill unit after unit, and with storage unit prices in some areas it’s amazing how they afford to continue to pay for their habit. Getting them mental help, emotional support, and physical organization options can be a great three-pronged approach to getting their hoarding under control. The psychology of hoarding can be complex, but it won’t get better until help is provided and the hoarder becomes proactive in working to control the problem.

SSF Team

SSF Team

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