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'Your world gets very small': Irish researchers working to unravel what causes hoarding

A team of scientists at Trinity College Dublin are trying to advance the understanding of what causes people to hoard.

Hoarders have persistent difficulties parting with possessions. File photo.
Hoarders have persistent difficulties parting with possessions. File photo.
Image: Shutterstock/Evgeny Pylayev

DESPITE BEING THE subject of books and reality TV shows the reasons people hoard objects are not well understood.

People who hoard find it very difficult to get rid of things, even items of no apparent value such as old newspapers, plastic bags and cartons. This can quickly lead to a situation where the hoard starts to encroach on their life, swallowing up living space and seizing psychological bandwidth.

Now, a team of researchers at Trinity College Dublin are trying to unravel what drives the behaviour.

Reality TV Programmes such as ‘Britain’s Biggest Hoarders’, ‘Hoarding SOS’ and ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive’ proved wildly popular in the past decade but critics say they are exploitative of the people involved and offer little insight.

Psychologist Jennifer Mulligan explains that hoarding is viewed as a “defence against parting” that is often triggered by a loss in someone’s life.

“It’s tied into how we understand objects and how we relate to things. In hoarding, something has gone wrong for the person – either early in life, or an event has happened, or there’s been a loss somewhere and it’s unresolved, unprocessed – and the hoard becomes the substitution for that,” Mulligan said.

The behaviour can provoke shame in the hoarder and they often try to keep it secret, adding a further layer of psychological baggage and isolation as they stop letting people visit their home.

It can also put significant restrictions on a person’s movements as they will avoid going on holidays because they are conscious of their hoard and have a desire to be close to their things.

“People don’t see it but it’s going on and it’s having a huge impact on people’s lives. It’s affecting their ability to move on and it can destroy relationships. It can also impact a person’s ability to go about their day to day life as the hoard can get in the way,” Mulligan added.

The Trinity researcher added that instances where social services get involved and the hoard is removed – as is sometimes seen on reality TV programmes – can have a significant psychological impact on the individual and they often start hoarding again.

We know that the approach of just removing the hoard – or helping somebody get rid of the stuff that they’ve walled themselves in with – doesn’t actually do anything to help the person.

The researchers say it’s likely that there has been an increase in the number of people impacted by hoarding since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic as social distancing measures may have made the hoarding invisible.

It’s suspected that this may have particularly been a problem for people who were receiving visits from community mental health services, which were stopped because of coronavirus restrictions.

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The Trinity team are looking to investigate the impacts on people who’ve previously hoarded for a study which aims to shed light on the complex behaviour. 

The researchers are looking for participants who have been hoarding for at least one year and are particularly interested in the experiences of people who were hoarding prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“For some people, they previously may have just done a small amount of hoarding, but over the pandemic – and all the anxiety that caused for people, or for people who lost loved ones – they’re hoarding may have exacerbated. So, it’s about trying to understand that a bit more,” Mulligan explained.

“It’s not a bad thing to hoard, hoarding isn’t bad. But it can have significant impacts on your relationships and your world gets very small, physically and mentally,” Mulligan added.

Things get smaller and smaller when you’re hoarding and the study is about opening that up so we can understand it and find the right supports for people who are struggling with this.

People who are interested in volunteering for the Trinity College study are being encouraged to contact the research team by emailing tcdhoarding@gmail.com.

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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