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When does hoarding become a disease?

May 29, 2013

    Paige Baschuk, Daily Briefing

    We've all likely known someone who can't bear to part with old newspapers or long-forgotten keepsakes. For many years, these hoarding habits were seen as willful behavior, but for the first time, the American Psychiatric Association's latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has classified hoarding as a disease.

    Once considered a subset of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), emerging research has shown that the two disorders have weak links, according to the New York Times' Jan Hoffman. Overall, only about 20% of hoarders also have OCD.

    In a 2012 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers found that hoarders show distinctive brain abnormalities when asked to make decisions such as discarding personal junk mail or newspapers. When OCD sufferers were asked to complete the same tasks, they did not show the same brain abnormalities on fMRI scans.

    Randy O. Frost—a Smith College psychologist and a co-author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things—says hoarders can be divided into categories. Some hoarders feel a rush when they acquire something at a yard sale, dollar store, or on home shopping networks. Others have trouble discarding the things they already have, like junk mail or newspapers.

    • From the Care Transformation Center: How hospitals can proactively meet their patients' behavioral health needs.

    "There is safety, comfort, and value in their possessions," Frost told the New York Times, adding that hoarders "have difficulty with organizing and processing information."

    For example, my sister meets with a friend once a week to help him organize, recycle, and trash various things that he has, ahem, "collected" over the years. She tells me that he often stares at an item silently for minutes at a time struggling to decide where it belongs, until she pushes him to make a choice.

    Her experience suggests one challenge facing hoarders: Even after they recognize they have a problem, many cannot figure out how to solve it.

    On the blogs today

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