07/14/2014 03:47 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2014

Hoarding: A Problem Far Worse Than It Seems

Hoarding is more than just a reality show. It's a real problem that can lead to significant impairment in one's life. This was true with Beverly Mitchell, age 66, who was found dead in her Cheshire, Connecticut home on June 14, 2014. Authorities believe hoarding is what led to her house collapsing and ultimately taking her life. It is also said to be the culprit in a fatal New York City fire. These tragic incidents represent the worst case scenario of hoarding and are eye-opening to just how serious of a problem this can potentially be.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, hoarding occurs in 2-5 percent of the population and is defined as the excessive saving of items that others may view as worthless. The hoarder may have difficulty getting rid of such possessions, thereby leading to clutter to the point that it disrupts their ability to use their living or work space.

The results of this disorder include life-threatening hazards such as what we saw in the Connecticut case, to feelings of isolation and loneliness due to people either not wanting to visit the person's home due to the clutter or the hoarder being too embarrassed to have visitors, and also an inability to take care of daily living tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and moving around.

As with many mental health disorders, we don't know the exact cause; however, there are common characteristics among hoarders. There's often an underlying obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and anxiety. I've also seen an element of perfectionism and indecisiveness in some of my patients.

So, are you wondering if you're a hoarder? Here's a brief assessment to determine if you might be:

  • Do you have trouble discarding things that most other people would get rid of easily? These might include old newspapers, clothing, magazines, etc.
  • Does clutter make it difficult to use rooms in your house or surfaces such as counter tops and tables?
  • Do you buy items or acquire things that you do not need or have enough space for?
  • Does your saving/collecting of items affect your daily functioning (eating, sleeping, and taking care of hygiene)?
  • Does your saving/collecting of items interfere with school, work, or your social or family life?
  • How much distress does saving/collecting cause you?

Hoarding is treatable and is usually done through cognitive behavioral therapy where there's an attempt to change the way someone thinks about certain issues and help them to discard items with little stress. With hoarders, I'd want to know what purpose the hoarding plays in their lives. Is it about control? Is it a byproduct of laziness and procrastination? Or perhaps it is how the person soothes an underlying depression in in much the same way someone might use food or drugs to distract them from their problems or depression. If this is the case, then the depression should be treated.

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