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The Basics of Hoarding - Is it all about acquiring?

By David Bain, CUCB Program Specialist at the Mental Health Association of San Francisco

Hoarding disorder is difficult for a lot of people to understand. Most adults can relate to depression because of the death of a loved one, a divorce or perhaps a major illness. However, it is very difficult for people to understand the inability to discard “stuff”.

Frequently, people think hoarding is about excessive acquiring; however, in most cases, that is not the problem. Sometimes, people who hoard talk about a “shopping high” and a lack of awareness of the passage of time. However, that is more the exception than the rule. While we all can experience the “thrill of the hunt” when looking for just the right gift, shoes, book, or whatever might have our attention, most of us remain in control of our spending -- most of the time.

Most individuals dealing with hoarding problems have accumulated their stuff over many years, and it is not until they reach their 40s, 50s, or 60s that the problem gets out of hand. The problem is much more about not discarding than it is acquiring. In fact, people who hoard have no problem discarding items belonging to someone else.

The hardest thing for others to understand is that the problem is more about HOW people who hoard think about the stuff, rather than the stuff itself. Some examples of why people hoard include:

  • Emotional Attachment - Do you have a picture, clothing, or decoration that you are keeping because of the person or event associated with the item? That’s emotional attachment.
  • Identity Associated with the Item - Do you have clothing or items related to your favorite sports team? That’s how an item helps you created an identity that you wish to present to the world.
  • A Sense of Responsibility - Do you have something you can’t just get rid of because it is too expensive? That’s responsibility.

The behaviors associated with hoarding disorder are similar to an addiction. And, like an addiction, the first hurdle is to get past the denial. Often a person who hoards will first seek help when they get an eviction notice. However, there are many other factors that cause individuals to seek help. Typically, help-seeking behavior is a person’s first step in accepting the fact that they have a hoarding problem.

The MHA of San Francisco provides a range of services to help people with hoarding issues. Whether their next step is attending a drop-in support group, requesting help from a peer response team member, or committing to a 16-session “Buried in Treasures” group, finding a non-judgmental support system that understands them can be life-changing or, at the very least, the first step in creating a life with less stuff. The knowledge that they can in fact learn to control the stuff, instead of the stuff controlling them, gives them a reason to hope and to act.

To learn more about services and trainings that MHA of San Francisco provides, visit their website by clicking here.


David Bain currently works for the Mental Health Association of San Francisco. He is a member of a research team working with University of California San Francisco on the topic of hoarding disorder. He has led over 18 Buried in Treasures groups serving over 100 participants. He has developed multiple trainings for both clients and professionals and has presented nationally on the topic of hoarding and its treatment.

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