By JAN HOFFMAN
Published: May 26, 2013
Hoarding was once considered a type of obsessive compulsive disorder, but studies have shown that only 20 percent of people who hoard also have O.C.D. Some 50 percent of hoarders, however, suffer from major depression. In the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, hoarding is now defined as distinct disorder.
In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, brain scans of patients who hoarded were compared to those of O.C.D. patients and healthy control subjects. When asked to throw out junk mail and newspapers, the hoarders registered abnormal activity in decision-making areas of the brain, while brain activity in the other groups appeared normal.
Although the disorder is often discovered in isolated older people, many patients show emerging signs in adolescence. Men and women suffer in equal numbers.
According to Randy O. Frost, a Smith College psychologist and a co-author of “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” some patients have greater difficulty with acquiring while others cannot discard so much as a plastic bag. They acquire to self-soothe or feel a rush—an urge fed by dollar stores, yard sales, big box warehouses and shopping channels.
“There is safety, comfort and value in their possessions,” Dr. Frost said.
Many sufferers understand they have a problem, but cannot figure out how to solve it. “They have difficulty with organizing and processing information,” he said.
Lee Shuer, 38, a peer counselor with a Massachusetts mental health agency, struggles with hoarding. “I’d see groups of items at one-day sales,” he said, “so I’d buy 10 Simpsons action figures and suddenly I’d have a collection. It’s harder to let go of a collection than just one item.”
Collections filled boxes, covered floors, then all flat surfaces in his East Hampton home. His basement disappeared. But then he led peer-group sessions based on another book co-written by Dr. Frost, “Buried in Treasures,” which includes cognitive behavioral techniques, intended to redirect hoarding impulses.
The program initially addressed discarding, and then strategies for reducing what came into the home. Mr. Shuer suggested reversing the order, because tossing first had the unintended consequence of creating more space, a lure to keep acquiring.
The workshops manual is available free online. Mr. Shuer says he has let go of many collections: “I was feeling better about myself and needed them less. I was freed.”