Do you have hoarding tendencies? Beyond the mess lies a mental health problem

The effect of hoarding: clutter at home. Photo: Jesse Pizarro Boga

At a glance, hoarding can simply be defined as the result of the difficulty involved in discarding possessions of little value often due to a perceived need to save them for future use.

The danger in this comes when hoarded possessions and items accumulate and start to affect a person’s life.

“Among balay hapit na mahugno kay akong inahan di ilabay ang mga old things kay kuno naay sentimental value,” said netizen Val in a crowdsourced Mindanao Times Facebook survey. “These include old appliances: a TV, a stereo set, and an old nonfunctioning refrigerator now used as a shelf to store old magazines.”

“Pathological hoarding (or hoarding that is considered a clinical disorder) is considered when objects and items are accumulated to such an extent that they congest the areas of a person’s space so much that this is substantially compromised or limited, causing distress, exposing them to danger, and restricts their quality of life,” said Dr. Louie Lacno, a former resident physician at the Southern Philippines Medical Center’s Institute of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine (SPMC-IPBM).

Collecting vs. hoarding

Lacno mentions the following criteria when diagnosing hoarding: difficulty in discarding items or objects regardless of actual value; and clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational and other important areas of functioning.

“However if these symptoms are seen in an individual it is highly recommended to approach a mental health professional for proper diagnosis,” Lacno said. “This should help anyone distinguish a person who has the condition as compared to others who merely collect items which they deem are valuable (e.g. stamps, vintage toys/cars, porcelain dolls, etc.)”

“My sentimental mom firmly believes that things have memories attached to them and refuses to throw them out. I belong to a big family and, to my mom that means more family members and more memories! She keeps all our baby clothes, hair from our first haircuts, effects from childhood, the gown she wore as mutya when she was 18, etc. It occupies at least one bedroom (around 20 sq.m.) of our house in the province. She’s a hoarder of old and useless stuff,” shared Chuck Gepaya in the same survey.

“She knows each item by heart. She can pick one item and spend an entire afternoon regaling the history of that item. That’s why when our house was consumed by fire in 2012, she was devastated. She wasn’t able to sleep well for a month,” Gepaya said.

Lacno said the cause of hoarding is not totally known.

“Some propose that a family history can be pointed out as a cause, although genetic studies do not prove this. Other psychological theories also propose that patients often have excessive sentimental attachments to the objects they hoard,” he said.

And when hoarders are confronted, they become defensive and will always say that they have plans to use in the future the things they keep.

“Sometimes these individuals may deny that they have a problem or are aware of it but lack the motivation to do anything about it,” he said.

Hoarder at home

Countless of health articles online list down many signs of hoarding, but there is a peculiar way this manifests in Filipino homes: when you’re visiting a friend’s house and they tell you “gubot baya among balay” like a modest warning, managing guest expectations…or maybe a hesitation to accommodate.

Unya gubot jud diay. Hoarders are often unable to invite friends or visitors over because there’s no space to accommodate them.

In an article, Dr. Daniel Yohanna, of the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, said hoarding is currently categorized as an anxiety disorder, part of the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

She described how this behavior often makes parts of homes unusable.

“Generally, furniture has been slowly moved into the middle of a room as the periphery is filled higher and higher with useless objects. Eventually, only pathways exist throughout the home to get from room to room, a chair, or a bed.”

Spaces intended for breathing are no more because these become areas for accumulated possessions filled with dust and cobwebs, making the home unsanitary. The worse part: there is no organization to the clutter, and there is no way to locate things at command.

Hoarding also manifests in the way some people keep old clothes and uniforms with hopes to wear them again and storing broken appliances that are imagined to be fixed someday.

Lacno said psychotherapy is often the most recommended form of treatment for hoarding and this takes several sessions and participation of the patient.

“However it is important to always approach a trained mental health professional, especially someone with experience in psychotherapy, as this intervention can do more harm than good if done improperly,” he said.