How Hoarding Works

Myths About Hoarding

hoarding mental illness hoarding mental illness
The more we learn about hoarding disorder, the more we realize there is still much to learn about the disease. Marcus Hessenberg/BarcroftImages/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

As we learn more about compulsive hoarding, we're finding out some of what we thought we knew isn't true. Here are some common myths about hoarding.

  • Hoarding only affects older people. Studies have found that hoarding symptoms begin showing up as early as adolescence [source: Ayers]. It's a progressive disease that grows worse over the years, and only the most severe cases tend to get publicized, so the hoarders we most often encounter are older. Recognizing the signs earlier in life could prevent them from getting out of control.
  • Hoarders are just lazy. Hoarding is a serious mental illness that drives people to illogical extremes of acquisition and keeping items. It isn't a simple matter of being too lazy to clean up.
  • Hoarding is a recent phenomenon. Although TV shows have brought hoarding into the public eye and given it a much higher profile in the last 10 years or so, there are historic reports of hoarding going back centuries. "Dante's Inferno" describes a circle of hell just for hoarders, while the protagonist of the George Eliot novel "Silas Marner," published in 1861, is in many ways a hoarder, along with the character Plyushkin in the 1842 novel "Dead Souls" by Nikolai Gogol. Sigmund Freud and other early 20th century psychologists discussed hoarding behaviors (although they were way off the mark when they tried to explain it) [sources: Arkowitz and Lilienfeld, Herring].
  • Hoarders have experienced poverty or deprivation in their past. One of the ways people have tried to explain hoarding behavior is suggesting that it's a response to a period of poverty or lack of material things in their past, such as living through the Great Depression. Research has found that no such connection exists [source: Frost and Gross]. However, there is a connection between hoarding behaviors and past trauma, such as excessive discipline as a child. This suggests that compulsive hoarding may be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder [source: Samuels].
  • Hoarding is just a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Although the seemingly illogical behavior of compulsive hoarding might look similar to some of the behaviors associated with people who suffer from OCD, recent studies have found that it is a distinct disease, not simply a symptom of another disease. For instance, hoarders don't experience the "intrusive thoughts" that plague OCD sufferers. However, the issue is complicated by the fact that hoarders often have OCD, as well as other mental health problems such as anxiety and depression [source: Duenwald].
  • Hoarding can be cured simply by just throwing away all the junk and cleaning the house. There are times when, for health, safety or even legal reasons, an emergency cleanout of a hoarder's home might be unavoidable. A cleanout will not change the underlying mental health problem, however. We asked Lisa Hale, founding director of the Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City about ways to deal with a family member's hoarding. "A cleanout or move to a new environment does not resolve the behavior without treatment," she says in an email. "The statistics literally approach the 100 percent mark of hoarding reoccurring unless treatment and/or close environmental oversight is in place."