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Posted July 2, 2008
A Good Article for Priests and People who live alone and tend to never throw out things --- whose homes are nothing but clutter.

Catholic University hosts seminar on
causes, impacts of hoarding

By Brandy Wilson, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- People's clutter can say a lot about their mental health, researchers said at a June 26 symposium on hoarding at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Among the attendees were social workers, mental health professionals and emergency medical technicians, sharing stories and solutions for helping compulsive hoarders.

"It's easy to look at a hoarder's life and judge, but it's more helpful to come together and help," said Jennifer Berger, a lawyer with the AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly in Washington and one of the symposium panelists.

According to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation Web site, as many as 1.4 million people in the United States are compulsive hoarders.

The condition, defined on the site by Smith College professor Randy Frost, is an obsessive need to acquire and save objects without discarding anything, accumulating so much that living spaces cannot be used for what they're intended and the clutter causes impairment or distress.

But the hoarder isn't always the distressed one. Excessive hoarding can create public safety or health concerns, like fire hazards, pest infestations and other unsanitary conditions.

At the symposium, code enforcers and property managers spoke of instances they intervened at the request of others affected by someone else's massive quantity of hoarded items.

"We sometimes have to go to court at the request of neighbors who say we can't live like this," said panelist Ana Channell, property manager for William C. Smith & Co. in Washington.

Researchers and mental health professionals in the field are trying to raise an awareness that the condition is a mental health one and quell the preconception it is merely disorganization or laziness.

One symposium attendee who works primarily with the homeless found hoarding existed in that community. "You can't paint all hoarders with the same paintbrush. There's no typical hoarder," said Henriette Kellum, a mental health therapist in Arlington, Va., specializing in hoarding.

Research provided at the symposium found that compulsive hoarding, long believed a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder, is a mental health condition in its own right. Some research found no direct correlation to the disorder.

"Clutter is only the behavioral manifestation. Hoarding is often precipitated by loss -- a loss of a person or things," said Christiana Bratiotis, a Boston University doctoral student researching hoarding.

Mary De Van, a licensed clinical social worker from California, said she sees the same pattern. "They are comforted by the clutter; they love the things they have. It's the kind of attachment beyond what most people have and the idea of getting rid of it is very distressing," she said.

Social anxiety, depression and isolation can cause someone to be a compulsive hoarder or can be the result of hoarding.

"Some of these people are isolated. They're in pain -- emotional, physical pain. There's so much more to this. There are social implications, think of the grandmother that can't have her grandchildren in her home because they have no place to play," said an attendee who deals with hoarding in her job as a social worker.

In addition, there is the potential for hoarding to cause physical injury.

"Hoarding can be fatal," said Kellum. "There's the case of a gentleman who died in a house fire because firefighters were unable to get to him. People have been found dead under their things. ... There can be very high risks."

Mary Timeyin, a Washington resident and workshop attendee, said the symposium opened her eyes to her own past hoarding problem. "I wondered how on earth I could have lived like that."

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Timeyin said a personal loss precipitated her depression and hoarding.

"I'd always suspected something was wrong. I feel relieved. It's comforting to know what it is," she said. Timeyin also sought the panel members' advice for her elderly mother, who had two rooms stacked to the ceiling with items, she said.

The consensus reached at the symposium was that it takes collaboration by many agencies including those dealing with housing, legal issues and mental health to begin to solve the problem. Los Angeles and other cities have a hoarding task force.

Kellum believes the biggest obstacle is trying to help the segment of the hoarding population who are unaware that their compulsion is a problem. "The people that come to us and ask for our help aren't the problem; it's the ones who don't," she said.