We all have certain items that we’re into and like to accumulate.

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We all have certain items that we’re into and like to accumulate. It could be shoes, books, CDs, clocks or even antique statuettes
of frogs. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that,
most of the time.
If you’re in control of your purchases and manage to keep them organised it can provide enjoyment and even a sense of pride. But when it gets out of hand it can develop into the uncontrollable act of compulsive hoarding. It’s estimated that problem hoarding affects two to four per cent of the population.
“You can hoard absolutely anything and it can present itself in very different ways,” says Professor Don Jeffreys from Deakin University’s Department of Psychology. “And you can go anywhere to facilitate the hoard – from the tip to a clothing sale. You might go to the supermarket and collect the sales literature. I had one client whose hoard was facilitated by kleptomania – he stole the items.”
While hoarding often begins in childhood, it is not usually recognised until you hit adulthood, at which time it may have grown into an uncontrollable monster and become very difficult to treat.

What we hoard and why
Though not new – in fact, it was recognised in ancient Greek times – compulsive hoarding has definitely come out of the closet in recent years and our understanding of how it works has grown considerably. Despite this, there is still much conjecture surrounding the condition.
Compulsive hoarding is often categorised as a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But while an estimated 42 per cent of OCD patients have compulsive hoarding as a secondary symptom, and for many there does appear to be a link between the two conditions, they do not necessarily go hand in hand.
“Compulsive hoarding doesn’t respond to the normal therapy used for OCD,” Dr Jeffreys says. “Brain scans of people with OCD and compulsive hoarding are also quite different.”
More correctly categorised as a type of anxiety disorder, compulsive hoarding appears to be influenced by emotional triggers or genetics, with many sufferers having at least one parent who is also a hoarder.
Hoarding usually starts slowly in childhood or adolescence and, without intervention, can become a serious psychological problem in adulthood. Items commonly hoarded include magazines and newspapers, clothes, books, mechanical parts, toiletries, junk mail and containers.
There are also compulsive pet hoarders – now recognised as a public health issue – and others who have syllogomania – the compulsive hoarding of rubbish.
“It’s quite different from collecting,” Dr Jeffreys says. “Compulsive hoarding is an absence of organisation.”

Recognising the signs
A compulsive hoarder will go to great lengths to maintain their habit and keep it hidden from view.
“People slowly degenerate and as the hoarding progresses they become increasingly secretive, they don’t let people into their home, will often make up lies and consequently the hoard goes undiscovered for years,” Dr Jeffreys says. “One person I know hadn’t let anyone into their house in 13 years.”
Inside the house of a serious hoarder, the problem is usually obvious.
“You walk into the house of a compulsive hoarder and you recognise it very quickly,” Dr Jeffreys says. “The hallway is usually piled with boxes and there are other rooms which are totally consumed by more boxes. The house is completely compromised or they may build extra rooms onto the house to facilitate the hoard. They may even use storage space in public storage facilities.”
Hoarding rubbish is at the serious end of the hoarding spectrum.
“This is a more pathological condition where a person’s house is just full of rubbish,” Dr Jeffreys says. “It could be old papers, foodstuffs, anything. I’ve been to houses where it’s a metre high in rubbish and you can’t move in any room.”

Partner problems
When one partner develops a problem with hoarding it can put a tremendous strain on the relationship. It may start off with them wanting one designated room in which to place their items but invariably encroaches on the rest of the house.
The lies, denials and anti-social behaviour of not wanting visitors to the house can also create friction and impinge on the social life of the other, non-hoarding members of the household.
“When your partner is hoarding it can be a challenge,” Dr Jeffreys says. “It’s important to get them to recognise that they have an issue, but that can be very difficult.
“For others not in a relationship hoarding can also be a major barrier to meeting a future partner because in order to do so they would have to come into their home and then [the potential partner] would see what [the hoarder] is really like, which is a bit tragic.”

Start the cull
Getting yourself or someone close to you to change their behaviour and start the process of culling their chosen items can be extremely difficult, particularly if the hoarding has developed to an uncontrollable level.
“With adults they may know that they are hoarding and that their lives are compromised, but they don’t recognise that they have a problem and don’t want to seek out and get treatment because they’re embarrassed about their behaviour,” Dr Jeffreys says.
Although some people with hoarding problems may respond well to pharmacological strategies used in the treatment of OCD – such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – the most effective treatment, says Dr Jeffreys, is behavioural therapy.
“A behavioural strategy involves working with the individual to dispose of the hoard,” he explains. “We work with them through the anxiety and eventually they dispose. It’s no good just expecting them to just do it themselves following counselling, you’ve got to have someone working alongside them.
“It’s a big challenge. Not only are people reluctant to eradicate their hoard and very anxious about doing it, but also the chance of them reversing once the treatment is over is very high.”
The earlier you can address the issue the more successful the treatment is likely to be.
“Early intervention is really important,” Dr Jeffreys says. “If you can catch it early you have a much greater chance of preventing the illness from evolving into something much more debilitating and compromising.”
If you or someone close to you experience ongoing issues with compulsive hoarding, it’s recommended to first consult your GP, who can then refer you to a psychologist specialising in compulsive hoarding and anxiety disorders. Or to find a psychologist in your area visit www.psychology.org.au