Health effects of hoarding

According to the January 1, 2008, New York Times article “A Clutter Too Deep for Mere Bins and Shelves,” hoarding is a symptom of something much larger than just being messy and disorganized:

Excessive clutter and disorganization are often symptoms of a bigger health problem. People who have suffered an emotional trauma or a brain injury often find housecleaning an insurmountable task. Attention deficit disorder, depression, chronic pain and grief can prevent people from getting organized or lead to a buildup of clutter. At its most extreme, chronic disorganization is called hoarding, a condition many experts believe is a mental illness in its own right, although psychiatrists have yet to formally recognize it.

Adding more storage to a home will not remedy the problem. The added storage just becomes a clutter safety net, like we discussed here. More on this from the article:

…the problem with all this is that many people are going about it in the wrong way. Too often they approach clutter and disorganization as a space problem that can be solved by acquiring bins and organizers.

Measures like these “are based on the concept that this is a house problem,” said David F. Tolin, director of the anxiety disorders center at the Institute of Living in Hartford and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Yale.

“It isn’t a house problem,” he went on. “It’s a person problem. The person needs to fundamentally change their behavior.”

13 Comments for “Health effects of hoarding”

  1. posted by Josh on

    I find it hard to put a time frame on stuff. My wife has to keep everything. It all has a box, or a bin or a shelf…but it all has to stay. (Unless of course we haven’t the room. Then we put up the yard sale sign.)

    I, on the other hand, toss everything. I once cleaned my car out, and I threw out my registration. I think things should have time limits (minus my registration…I think I need that one). Anyone have a suggestion?

  2. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Josh — Ask yourself if having something in your home distracts you from what is important to you. If you see a bin and instantly become stressed, it’s time for the clutter to go.

  3. posted by Katie on

    Changing behaviors and attitudes is what you and Dr. Ragan over Psychology of Clutter have been talking about for a year. I guess the author has been reading both blogs, yours and hers.

  4. posted by Sharon on

    People who has this problem wouldn’t even look like a site like this. Most of us know we have too much stuff and want to control it.

  5. posted by Patrick on

    I’ve had the pleasure of re-evaluating how I live and decide what I want to keep or not keep. I spent four grueling years in engineering school where between studying and working, I had little time for anything else. During that time, I gave little attention to cleaning and getting rid of clutter. The only time I would feel like I wanted to clean was when I wanted to avoid something else (inevitably studying for exams). Little by little I began desiring to change things. I had heard about Getting Things Done and then by extension 43 Folders (http://www.43folders.com). Through Merlin Mann of 43 Folders, I heard about “It’s All Too Much.” Through those things and a desire to make my life more efficient (like any good engineer), I’ve been getting better. It really is a mental problem more than anything. When I moved recently, I had to make a lot of decisions about throwing things out. They were hard, but worth it. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m pretty good about asking the question “do I really need this?” when I pick up something be it papers, “stuff”, or something else. The first step in knowing you need to do something is admitting you do.

  6. posted by Ethel on

    I wish I knew how to pass this information on to my sister, who is starting to feel too cramped in her home. I honestly think that she has a hoarding problem – she now wants a 3,000 sq ft home for her family of four. She has a playroom that is crammed to the gills with toys for her two children and an office filled with papers, books, sentimental “stuff”, and very little organization. She also has a garage filled with every thing she or someone she knows may need in the future.

    I can’t believe that moving (and affording the new house) is easier than putting in the hours or days of work she would need to triage her extra stuff. However, I think that “stuff” *is* a security net for her, since she’s been through major life changes and poverty on several occasions. I do think she feels more secure knowing that she has what she will need if something happens to her family. And she’s willing to pay for twice the house she needs to keep it around.

    Right now, I am loving Freecycle. I am getting rid of so many things I would otherwise be throwing out or donating, and they are going to people who really want them. I’m hoping that my sister will be interested in using it to get rid of items she can’t stand to waste, but which are currently cluttering up her home and garage.

    Plus, knowing that there is a community of people eager to give away useful things is helping me have the security to get rid of my own clutter. Even though I expect to have more children, I am giving away my maternity clothes and baby clothes – I am sure someone will return the favor a couple of years from now when I need those items again.

  7. posted by verily on

    Ethel, I know a family exactly like that. The garage is bursting at the seams with junk that has never been touched in years, but they will not part with because it’s got sentimental value. (I find it hard to believe anything in a dirty box in a filthy garage can be all that valuable)

    I live with an avid reader and subsequent book hoarder. She has at least 20 small boxes worth of books and most of them are in the garage. I guarantee that she will never read them again, but she is convinced that she “might” and therefore keeps them around. If she ever bought a house, I imagine a single bedroom would become a veritable library, stacked from floor to ceiling with books, full of dust, and rarely visited.

    I do my best to help her part with them and she does occasionally cull the collection by a box or two. So, I’ve made my peace with her cluttered ways. She’s not so bad about hoarding other objects, just books.

  8. posted by Joshua on

    I recently took some vacation time from work and one of the first things I did was spend some serious time decluttering. It’s amazing how much stuff you can find that you absolutely don’t need and just ends up distracting you. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone said if you have something you literally haven’t touched in a year, pitch it :)

  9. posted by selenium on

    Ethel, et al–to anyone needing help getting out of “chaos” (can’t have anyone over syndrome) and getting rid of clutter, I highly recommend http://www.flylady.net.

    You sign up for free email reminders to get into a routine of throwing stuff away and learning what to toss and what to keep and for how long. It is awesome and life-changing, and no, I don’t get a kick back.

    It can take years of work and chipping away at the clutter before it changes you entirely, but it can and will happen.
    S

  10. posted by Alex Williams on

    A few years ago, I started a policy regarding clothes:
    If you haven’t worn it in 6 months, donate it or toss it.
    (excepting, seasonal clothes).

    Within the last year, I’ve started a similar policy regarding STUFF. It’s hard. I’m a computer geek, and I have tough time tossing computer parts (cables, old IDE cards, Hard Drives, etc.) You have to be firm, and ask yourself “when am I ever going to need this?

    Of course, just recently I found myself NEEDING something I recently recycled. That’s totally annoying — but not as annoying as all that crap we collect.

    For me, the peace of mind from a reduced clutter environment is more valuable than the stuff itself.

  11. posted by Jeanne B. on

    I definitely agree with the concept that emotional trauma can make the task of decluttering seem insurmountable, having faced this myself after losing both parents in 2006.

    Not only am I co-executrix of the estate, but I’m also living in their home. I’d moved out of my 3BR home to take care of them, bringing what I could along with me and leaving the rest at the old house for “later”. Then I essentially forgot I still had a half-empty house elsewhere until it occurred to me that I’d been paying a mortgage on a home I hadn’t lived in for 12 months.

    Shortly before Thanksgiving, I woke up to the chaos I had surrounded myself with and finally began to take control. The old house is empty and on the market and I’m currently making headway clearing out my parents’ home (which is now mine) and trying to get two households’ worth of stuff to fit into one house’s worth of space. I’m sure the emotional trauma contributed to this nightmare.

  12. posted by DebDeb on

    My Mother had brain suregery several years to remove what turned out to thankfully be a benign tumor. Since then, her home is like a collage in that she keeps adding unecessary items and furnishings that she does not have need or room to keep. My Mother was a good housekeeper and proud of her home but now she will have to look to find the mouse so that she can open the email I sent to her on this article. I would love to stay over at my Mother’s home but I get claustrophobic just visiting. I, on the other hand am completely organized or as my Mother calls me, “A Neat Freak.” When I visit I try to help her organize and clean and this seems to propel her into temporary action. All of her clutter is definately due to the life altering surgery and post-depression.

  13. posted by Julia on

    Hi I am 18 years old and i have been in a relashionship with my boyfriend who is 19 for 2 years now. I would call his family definate hoarders. His dad collects pictures and fills the house with them all the way to the celiling and other kinds of junk so theres paths and i always trip on things. i never eat at their house because the kitchen is so disgusting dishes piled up and things all over the floor its horriable.

    the smell oh my god its nausiating sometimes i have to hold my breath and sometimes i gag at the smell once i even puked! we always hangout in his room but used to have the most decent room in the house and now hes starting to pick up these bad traits like leaving garbage all over his bed and having old food on the ground.. its really gross. He makes sure his windows open alot of the time to make sure it doesnt smell as bad as the rest of his house. I know that his dad has some sort of brain damage and his mother is chronically obese and i also thinks she has some mental issues as well but he has never told me.

    i wish i could understand more about this because ive been around it way to much, pretty much i go there everyday and me and him come from totally different house holds. My family is above average and he i think lives of welfare im not exacly sure.

    the city has finally told them they need to clear there house out and they have a month to do it. i was really wondering about what health risks could occur in living in such conditions and really what the smell is because i have no idea im guessing mold or what else could be factors of the smell and can it effect people breathing
    in the stench?

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