On the surface, hoarding appears to be a growing issue in this day and age. In other words, an ever-increasing number of people appear to be laboring under what technically is known as hoarding disorder. This perceived increase in the incidence of hoarding gives rise to the understandable question of what accounts for the apparent rise in hoarding disorder.

Definition of Hoarding Disorder

A widely accepted definition of hoarding disorder is:

“Hoarding disorder is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.”

Mayo Clinic

A Brief History of Hoarding

In order to better understand why there has been an apparent rise in the incidence of hoarding disorder, tracing the history of this mental health condition is helpful. This includes a brief consideration of the origins of the concept of hoarding as an aberrant activity.

A fair argument can be made that the concept of hoarding can be traced to the legend surrounding King Midas. King Midas was bestowed what he initially perceived as an amazing gift. Everything he touched turned to gold. His Majesty wasted no time in amassing – hoarding — tremendous amount of gold.

Ultimately, this gift if turning anything touched into gold proved problematic for the King. When it came to eat … what he touched, turned to gold. Quite like King Midas, what a person with hoarding disorder amasses can prove to be the course of his or her demise over time.

Dante, in The Divine Comedy, also takes on hoarding. In this case, the Italian poet wrote of clergy that hoarded money and other riches, ending up consigned to the Fourth Circle of Hell. In the Fourth Circle of Hell, those condemned for hoarding are consigned to spend all eternity perpetually jousting with those who spent frivolously while on Earth.

Prior to the 20th century, evidence suggests that people only hoarded items of value. Beginning in the 20th century, individuals were identified that hoarded items of no value whatsoever.

What today is known as hoarding disorder initially was called Collyer’s Syndrome. Collyer’s Syndrome was named after a pair of brothers, Langley and Homer Collyer. Beginning in 1909 and extending into 1947 the two brothers hoarded in their Harlem mansion, eventually amassing tons of garbage, waste, and other useless items, including massive amounts of newspapers. In fear that their hoarded items would be stolen, innumerable booby traps were rigged throughout the residence.

In later years, Homer was incapable of walking. Langley would tend to his brother’s needs.

In 1947, a horrible odor emitted from the Collyer mansion. The police came to the scene and found Homer Langley dead in his chair. Langley was not where to be found. The initial theory was that Langley had left the mansion after his brother died.

Eventually, Langley’s remains were found – in the residence. As it turned out, Langley had been killed when he accidently triggered one of the booby traps. He was crushed to death by newspapers. With Langley dead, Homer had no one to care for him. Homer eventually died from starvation.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, and going forward until 2013, hoarding was classified as a type of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or OCD. Over time, researchers and mental health experts determined that classifying hoarding as a type of OCD was improper. The symptoms and manner of treatment for hoarding and OCD were too dissimilar to be group these conditions together. Beginning in 2013, hoarding disorder had its own classification in the DSM-5 (the Bible of mental health disorders and conditions).

Hoarding Disorder – A Largely Hidden Condition

By act and definition, hoarding disorder is a largely hidden condition. Individuals with hoarding disorder strive mightily to keep their activities hidden from others, including family and friends. Experts estimate that somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 6 percent of the population in the United States is afflicted with hoarding disorder. Due to the fact that hoarding fairly can be called a hidden condition, determining how many people hoard has proven impossible.

Shedding Light on the Lives of Hoarders

Public knowledge of hoarding, at least in the United States, enhanced in 2009 with the launch of the first of what would be a few television programs that focused on hoarding. These reality shows focused on the lives of people laboring under hoarding disorder and attempts made to restore order at their homes – and in their lives.

The sharper focus on hoarding had the added impact of drawing at least more people with hoarding disorder out from their self-imposed exiles. The net impact of this was an uptick in the number of hoarding cases that were identifiable. This did not necessarily mean that there are more cases of hoarding disorder in recent years.

Diagnostic Changes in 2013

As mentioned previously, a diagnostic change in 2013 resulted in hoarding disorder receiving its own DSM-5 classification. This change resulted in more people being diagnosed specifically with hoarding disorder rather than OCD more broadly. While the diagnostic change in 2013 did mean that more people were being diagnosed with hoarding disorder, that does not necessarily mean that more individuals were hoarding. People with this mental health disorder were being better classified. 

Increase in an Underlying Hoarding Risk Factor

Primary risk factors for hoarding disorder are thought to be:

  • Personality: Certain personality types are more likely to hoard (including people who exhibit indecisiveness)
  • Family History: A strong association exists between having a family member who hoards and the development of a hoarding disorder
  • Stressful Live Events: Stressful life events are hoarding triggers for some individuals (events that include death of a spouse or other loved one, divorce, loss of possessions in fire or flood)

The one area in which an increase in the total number of people with hoarding disorder may be that associated with the stressful life events risk factor. There is some quantifiable evidence that a larger number of people are experiencing higher levels of stress in this day and age than was the case less than a decade ago. As a result of this increase in the prevalence of stress among a larger segment of the population, an increase in the number of men and women afflicted with hoarding disorder appears to be a logical outcome.

Author

Emily Kil

Co-Owner of Eco Bear Biohazard Cleaning Company

Together with her husband, Emily Kil is co-owner of Eco Bear, a leading biohazard remediation company in Southern California. An experienced entrepreneur, Emily assisted in founding Eco Bear as a means of combining her business experience with her desire to provide assistance to people facing challenging circumstances. Emily regularly writes about her first-hand experiences providing services such as biohazard cleanup, suicide cleanup, crime scene cleanup, unattended death cleanup, infectious disease disinfection and other types of difficult remediations in homes and businesses.