Hoarding: The New Public Health Issue

by Danielle Smith on March 18, 2014

Do you have a friend or acquaintance who always saves their receipts, collects fortune cookie fortunes, or has all of their school work from elementary school to college saved in a box in the closet? In fact, this might even sound like something you might do. Would you then define your friend or yourself as a hoarder? My guess is probably not. Actually, these simple quirky acts that many of us do on a daily basis are nothing but parts of our personal character. However, when does the line get drawn between collecting fortune cookie fortunes as a hobby, and having a garage filled with boxes of junk? Well, the latter would be defined as a symptom of hoarding. The Department of Psychiatry at the University of California defines hoarding as “a disorder characterized by difficulty discarding items that appear to most people to have little or no value. This leads to an accumulation of clutter such that living and workspaces cannot be used for their intended purposes.” Although many of us might not think of hoarding as a medical issue it has just recently been classified as a psychological matter in the psychiatric diagnosis manual. This matter has been receiving a lot of coverage lately with the introduction of a few new reality TV shows such as Hoarding: Buried Alive and Hoarders to name a few.
According to a recent article in the New York Times there is an estimated 3% to 5% of the American population suffering from this disorder. 5% might seem small but when considering the size of the United States and the millions of individuals who live in the States, 5% defines hundreds of thousands of people who are literally being buried in their own junk. I have given a lot of thought to this topic lately and really had trouble thinking of reasons why someone might choose to let their stuff accumulate to such as level that it becomes a danger to their well-being. After doing some internet surfing I stumbled upon a post on WebMD that listed a few reasons for hoarding being: “An intense emotional attachment to objects that others see as trivial — or even trash. They’d feel a sense of major loss if they had to throw this stuff away. A sense that many items have an intrinsic value, like others might see in artwork or driftwood. The assumption that an item might be useful someday, which compels them to save far more than “the drawer of hinges, thumbtacks, string, and rubber bands” that many of us keep.” (WebMD)
The one point that stuck with me the most was that hoarders feel that their items will be useful to them someday. Many of us are familiar with term “saving for a rainy day,” and after looking at hoarding through this light I realized that hoarders are constantly thinking about the future, and what they need (or think they need) to have in case something were to happen.
Nevertheless, while trying to make sense of hoarding, I realized that there is no true logic behind it, hence why it has been classified as a psychological disorder. But the medical effects from hoarding stem far beyond psychological health. There are several public health issues that can arise from moderate to extreme hoarding cases.
Hoarders generally have a bunch of stuff clustered into their homes, usually with no form of organization, therefore food gets placed under piles of things in the living room, clothes get hung in the bathroom and a bed is made on top of a pile of boxes in the kitchen. This type of environment is like a theme park for rodents, insects, and other creatures to crawl their way in, and infest permanently. Hoarders are usually, if not 100% of the time faced with contamination of their space with rodent and insects, which can cause a disaster for the human if these animals find their way into food that is being consumed.
Besides the possible medical danger, hoarding also poses as a big fire hazard, because in the incident that there is a fire in the home of an extreme hoarder, fire fighters would have a hard time accessing the property and controlling the fire, and even if they are able to get inside, they might be trapped in all of the stuff lying around. This endangers the life of the fire fighter, and neighboring individuals surrounding the home.
So what is being done about this issue? As mentioned before the new media focus on this issue has really helped put this problem into the public sector. Although hoarding is generally handled on local city level, where the local health department, or fire department assess a home, diagnose the problem, and orders the home owner to make adjustment with the possibility of facing legal action if they do not concur, these new shows are really also helping bringing the issue into the States awareness.
Hopefully by reading this post you were able to learn a little bit more about hoarding. I know personally the next time a think about starting a collection I might think twice about the necessity of what I am saving and why. In the meantime, I guess I should start shredding and recycling some of my notebooks from high school.

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Feature, Eric Metcalf MPHWebMD. “What Is Hoarding? Definition, Signs, Treatments.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2014.
“Specialty Programs.” Specialty Programs. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014. (http://psychiatry.ucsd.edu/OCD_hoarding.html)
Hoffman, Jan. “Task Forces Offer Hoarders a Way to Dig Out.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 May 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

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