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“It’s a hidden problem”: Understanding hoarding and the people who do it

Professor Nick Neave says more research is needed to understand people who hoard and the effect it has on their lives.

04/06/24

“It’s a hidden problem”: Understanding hoarding and the people who do it

A leading professor is calling for more research to be done to understand hoarding and create better therapies for dealing with it.

Last month saw Hoarding Awareness Week, now in its 10th year, with a theme focusing on ‘Then and Now’ regarding education and awareness of the disorder.

The week is a stakeholder awareness campaign across the political, health and social care communities to raise awareness of the risks associated with hoarding.

In a conversation with BBC Radio Newcastle, Professor Nick Neaves from Northumbria University Newcastle shared the latest findings from research into the practice.

The definition of hoarding is someone who accumulates too much stuff and attaches sentimental labels to these objects. This makes it difficult for them to disregard things they no longer need which results in clutter affecting their quality of life.

Hoarding is a recognised mental health condition, associated with anxiety and depression which can ruin people’s lives. Despite this, Professor Neaves says it can often go unnoticed.

“It’s quite a hidden problem, people tend not to disclose it or talk about it.

“When we tend to find it, it’s somebody that’s had these issues for many, many years. They’re so ingrained and so depressed, that often they feel helpless. They can’t get themselves out of this rut.

“They can’t use their toilet, they can’t use their bathroom, they’ll go the leisure centre for their shower. They cannot cook, they can’t do anything, they become so ingrained in these behaviours that have been there for many, many years.”

The exact cause of hoarding requires more research, however people who hoard have incredibly strong attachment to every item and associate it with emotion, significance, memory.

In some cases, hoarders transfer their need for security, certainty and reassurance onto objects where they have lacked to get these things from other people. In fact some people who hoard come to associate people with trauma, stress, abuse and uncertainty.

There can also be very close links with conditions such as autism, OCD, anxiety, depression, poor working memory. How they all interact we don’t yet fully understand.

“It’s not necessarily just trauma, it’s also a lack of certainty.

“They’ve all got a story to tell: it’s typically childhood, it’s typically the loss of a parent, the loss of both parents, or they’ve been brought up in care, they’ve been abused, they’ve had lots and lots of different types of traumas.

“Because they’ve had poor parenting, they’ve had chaotic childhoods…they fill their houses with these objects, and then they don’t have the skills to get rid of them. They don’t know who to speak to, they’re terrified to speak to the council because they think that they’ll be evicted (but they won’t). So there’s all these very complex emotions involved, and they are emotionally attached to all these objects.”

Despite more research being needed, Professor Neaves says there is an appetite for it. Following setting up the Hoarding Research Group, he said he was inundated with requests from professionals from varied backgrounds wanting to join.

“When we set out our hoarding research group […] we started out as a very small group of academics who were interested in this curious mental health problem.

“As soon as the university put it on the website, we were overwhelmed with interest from around the region.

“It was housing officers, fire safety officers, environmental health officers, social workers saying ‘hey, please can we join because we don’t know what’s going on here, we don’t know how to help people, it’s a major problem, we’re seeing it all the time.”

Professor Neaves also expressed concern that the therapies currently available for hoarders tend to be ineffective.

“The therapies that we do have for hoarding tends to be based around Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT). It’s worked for a lot of other mental health issues where it’s very effective – but for hoarding, in 20% of cases it works very well but for the other 80% or so, it doesn't.”

Dr Nick Neave is a Professor within the Department of Psychology. He is Director of the Hoarding Research Group, and Chair of the UK Hoarding Partnership.

Listen to the full interview on BBC Sounds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0hz9lfy

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