Cups, empty pots, cans, stuffed animals, plastic pots, CDs… At Edward Brown’s house, you can find almost anything.
Stacked on top of each other with no apparent logic, the objects he has accumulated throughout his life have made his home a difficult place to inhabit.
“There’s no room for people to change clothes if they come here,” the 60-year-old from Blackburn, an industrial town in northern England, tells the BBC.
Edward acknowledges that he has a problem, but shows difficulty in dealing with it. “(The tendency) to collect things sometimes gets out of hand.”
He suffers from compulsive hoarding syndrome, mental disorder that makes someone have great difficulty getting rid of objects that have no value or are of little importance to other people.
“This difficulty often leads to considerable clutter, making a space impassable” and where “the rooms can’t be used for what they were designed for: you can’t use the kitchen for cooking or the bedroom for sleeping,” Gregory says. Chasson, a psychologist and professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the United States.
From newspapers, magazines, food containers, shoes and cables, to umbrellas or bottle caps. Things in good condition or destroyed by use and time become precious objects for the accumulator.
Syndrome leads to considerable clutter, making a space impassable — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
It is a condition that makes no distinction between men and women, culture or socioeconomic status.
It affects at least 2.6% of the world’s population, with higher percentages in people over age 60 and those with other psychiatric diagnoses, such as anxiety or depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
And the severity of their symptoms, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, “got significantly worse” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘Like my sister’
Another important feature it is the strong urge that people with this disorder have to acquire and keep objects.
“It’s not just chaos, but also the desire to buy things or collect objects for free, or keep objects that have passively entered your life“, says Christiana Bratiotis, a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
“They want to preserve them because of the beliefs they have about these objects and because of the strong emotional connection they have with them.”
Bratiotis says that some of her patients may tell her things like, “This collection means as much to me as my sister does. And separating from her would be like cutting all ties with her.”
Hoarders want to preserve objects because of the strong emotional connection they have with them — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
“It represents part of their identity,” he explains.
Added to this is the belief that one day they may need these objects, whether for their intended use, for an alternative use or as part of a creative project.
The health dangers of not addressing this problem are multiple and more serious than they seem, starting with the physical ones.
“Compulsive hoarding can lead to all sorts of dangers: fire hazards, fall hazards, injury hazards, and a tremendous risk of infestation that increases the chance of developing diseases like asthma,” notes Chasson.
In terms of mental health, it leaves those who suffer from it socially isolated: those affected do not tell anyone about a condition “stigmatized by society, which interprets it as laziness, immorality or lack of personal standards and does not understand it as a mental health problem.” “, argues Bratiotis.
Although many of us can identify with the tendency to keep objects because they are beautiful, just in case, because they bring back good memories, or because we think we can find some kind of use for them, this does not necessarily make us compulsive hoarders.
Accumulation becomes a diagnosable condition when it causes harm or distress to the individual or those around them — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
It’s important to understand that it’s a behavior, and as such “it occurs on a continuum, ranging from mild to severe,” explains Bratiotis.
When are we faced with a case of compulsive hoarding or simply with a person with a “collector’s soul”?
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell,” says Chasson, “but it becomes a problem and a diagnosable condition when it causes harm or suffering to the individual or those around him or her.”
Also when daily activity inside the house is made impossible by clutter and accumulation.
You probably have in your mind the image of a house filled to the rafters with useless things, where there is no place for a pin, with a mountain of accumulated objects that barely leaves room for its owner — a person of middle age or older — to pass through the door. gate.
These are the most extreme cases that make their way — for obvious reasons — into the news and TV shows.
To get a more accurate picture, you need to resort to photos like these below, which is one of the resources used to assess when hoarding becomes a mental health issue.
Images show what a compulsive hoarder can be — Photo: FROST RO, STEKETEE G, TOLIN DF, RENAUD S. via BBC
The images show a living room, a kitchen, a bedroom, ordered from one to nine according to the number of accumulated objects, the first being without disorder and the ninth being the most serious situation.
They come from a study published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment in 2008 and indicate that, from the third photo, we are in the presence of a compulsive hoarder.
The accumulation of objects, however, is only the manifestation of the problem, its most obvious facet.
“Underneath the disorder, both metaphorically and literally, are parts of this problem that are less visible, but are still very important factors in the development of this behavior,” explains Bratiotis.
There are certain personality traits—difficulty making decisions, perfectionism, and procrastination—that, when combined, can predispose an individual to develop compulsive hoarding.
Unlike a collector, who holds a specific type of object, an accumulator holds all kinds of things — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
“We know that these people make decisions more slowly and question their decision almost immediately after making it,” he says.
There is no single cause for this disorder. “It’s not just evolutionary biology, it’s not just genetics or neurobiology, but all of these things play a role,” says the researcher.
“We know that the brain of a compulsive hoarder works differently,” explains Bratiotis, noting that these differences were seen on CT scans of people who were asked to perform tasks that involved storing and disposing of goods.
“We understand that the combination of these causes with some life experiences and, in particular, experiences around loss is what leads to this problem,” he adds, which despite becoming evident in middle age, begins to develop in childhood. or in adulthood.
“Research suggests that in more than 50% of cases the problem arises between the ages of 11 and 20,” says Bratiotis.
“He can manifest with things how to put away objects that others consider junk, but it is above all the thought process and beliefs that surround them“, says Chasson.
What happens is that it becomes obvious later, adds the psychologist, because children usually have people who organize things for them.
Accumulator needs to realize that it has losses
To this day, there is no cure for compulsive hoarding disorder. But the most promising treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy that specializes in the condition.
The goal is to change the way people think in order to modify their behavior and improve how they feel.
“The results have been moderate. They’re not irrelevant, but they’re not entirely successful either,” laments Bratiotis.
Some hoarders feel the urge to buy things — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
It also seeks to do “interventions to reduce the severity and impact of its consequences, improve the quality of life (of the person suffering from the disorder) and maintain progress”explains Chasson.
“And there are other modalities such as self-help groups with facilitators or different group approaches”, he adds.
Likewise, there is a lot that family or friends can do to help.
First, you should approach the problem “with empathy and affection, rather than taking an accusatory position,” recommends Bratiotis.
“You can say, ‘I’m worried about you living in this house because I know you’re going through something difficult and you can’t use this hallway because it’s blocked and I don’t want you to fall’.
It’s different from saying ‘you need to clean this hallway because you’re going to fall’,” says Bratiotis.
It’s also important to recognize that no matter how well-meaning they are, friends and family aren’t always the best people to help, she adds.
Even so, they can offer the accumulator support in seeking and obtaining external intervention.
Edward Brown, the Blackburn hoarder, is struggling to improve his situation and has helped set up a support group in his town for others in similar conditions.
He says he is “excited to support compulsive hoarders and see their lives improve.”