What is hoarding?
Hoarding is when you collect a lot of things and you have difficulty letting go of them. Many people collect things or live in conditions that other people consider messy or cluttered. What makes hoarding different is the attachment you have to the objects and the impact that it has on your daily life. For example, you may not be able to get into your kitchen or bathroom any more. This can then affect other aspects of your life, such as your ability to cook and eat healthy food, or your hygiene.
The type of things hoarders collect varies, but may include:
- books, newspapers and magazines
- packaging and containers
- food – including rotten or out-of-date items
Digital hoarding of data such as emails is also becoming more common.
Hoarding can be a mental health condition in its own right – a hoarding disorder - or it might be a symptom of another illness, such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dementia or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can be a result of an alcohol or substance addiction, which may also have complex causes. See below for where you can get help.
Why do some people become hoarders?
The causes of hoarding are not fully known. Some people start hoarding after a stressful change, such as retirement, bereavement or illness. It may be connected to a trauma, sometimes from childhood. If you tend to be reclusive or a perfectionist, you may be more susceptible. Most people who hoard live alone.
Many people who hoard wouldn’t describe themselves as hoarders. If you’re concerned, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you attached to your belongings?
- Do your things help you to remember sentimental events or people who have been important in your life?
- Do you feel safe knowing that you have the things that you collect?
- Do you talk to your belongings or feel that they would be upset if you moved or got rid of them?
- Do you find it difficult to use the bathroom, sleep in your bed, cook or use rooms for their intended purpose because of the number of things you’ve saved?
- Do you feel worried or embarrassed about letting others into your home?
- Did you have difficult experiences or relationships as a child that may have contributed to your attachment to belongings?
- Have you experienced trauma, bereavement, abuse or neglect at any time in your life?
- Have you lost status or independence, because of retirement or ill health for example?
If you answered yes to most of those questions, you may have a hoarding disorder. Over time this could affect you in many ways.
How you might feel
- Certain objects that seem to have no value to others might hold special meaning for you. Throwing them away could give you strong feelings of loss or grief.
- Making decisions about what to keep and what to discard may make you feel anxious. You might feel guilty or fearful of making the wrong decisions.
- Many people who hoard feel ashamed. You may be afraid of what will happen if you seek help or worried about being a burden.
- If you have a health condition, feel lonely or you’re on some types of medication, you may feel less motivated to make changes.
- You may not know where to start or where to go for support and could suffer from depression.
Other possible consequences
Hoarding can affect your relationships and lead to conflicts. For some people, it can also lead to money worries or make them vulnerable to bullying by local people.
If your home is cluttered, it may aggravate health conditions, cause fire hazards and increase your risk of falls. Your local fire service can advise on fire safety and falls prevention. Find out more in our Home Safety guide.
Where to get support
People who hoard often feel deeply ashamed and try to keep the problem hidden. If your hoarding is making you feel distressed or unwell, it’s best to seek help early on. Remember that it’s not your fault and you shouldn’t be judged.
Talk to your GP. If you find it difficult to raise the subject, you could use pictures to show the scale of the problem, such as a clutter image rating tool. You could also use an icebreaker form to help you explain your situation.
Your GP might refer you to local mental health services or a psychiatrist or therapist who specialises in hoarding. If it’s a symptom of another condition, you’ll probably be offered treatment for that first. You may need treatment for the underlying reasons for your hoarding, such as trauma or loss, before you can deal with your possessions.
You can refer yourself to NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services if you prefer. You can find contact details on the NHS website.
You could also contact your local council if you need care or support, but your hoarding is making that difficult. You can find your council’s contact details at Gov.uk.
For general advice on looking after yourself and help with other problems, such as bereavement or debt, see older adults and mental health.
There are two main treatments for hoarding – psychological therapy and medication. There’s no medication specifically for hoarding, but it can help with anxiety or depression for example.
The main psychological therapy is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help you to change the thoughts and feelings that lead you to hoard. It can take a long time, but CBT can be very effective. CBT may involve someone coming to your home to work with you on your possessions. Counselling may also be helpful.
You could seek help privately, but this can be expensive. Contact the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy to find an accredited therapist or ask your GP to recommend one.
Everyone has the right to respect for their private life and home, and to peaceful enjoyment of their possessions. However, hoarding can cause conflict with neighbours and might attract the attention of outside agencies.
The council’s environmental health team can take action if your home is posing a risk to health – yours or other people’s. For example, they may require you to deal with vermin and, if you don’t, they can enter your home to carry out the work, which you will have to pay for. It doesn’t matter whether you own your home or rent.
If you rent, your landlord has the right to inspect the condition of your home at a reasonable time. They must give you 24 hours written notice before they do this. Your landlord also has the right to enter your home to carry out necessary repairs if they give reasonable notice. If you don’t let them in, they may take legal action or try to evict you.
If you find it difficult to express your views and wishes, you may benefit from the support of an independent advocate.
Talk to someone
It can help to talk to someone you trust who won’t judge you. If there’s no one you feel you can open up to, try contacting a mental health helpline such as Mind Infoline or Samaritans. Or call The Silver Line, a free, confidential helpline for older people.
Sharing your problems with people who have similar experiences can be very helpful. If you’ve reached a point where you want to deal with your hoarding, a support group or forum may be able to offer practical advice and encouragement. Contact Mind for details of local support groups or join elefriends.org.uk. There are some organisations specifically for hoarders, including:
Hoarding sometimes overlaps with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Contact OCD Action for more information.
Take small practical steps
Once you’ve addressed the issues that have led to your hoarding, you may feel ready to start making changes within your home.
- Don’t try to do too much – it can feel overwhelming. Half an hour may be long enough. You could set a timer.
- Give yourself simple goals. It might help to focus on one item at a time – for example, papers or clothes – or one small area, such as a box or a cupboard.
- If you make a commitment to sort things out, try to stick to it.
- Write down how you feel and make a note of stressful events that make you want to acquire new things. This can help you recognise what triggers your hoarding.
- Once you’ve made the decision to let go of something, do it quickly.
- Give yourself goals to work towards that aren’t hoarding-specific – for example, inviting a friend to dinner or a visit from your grandchildren.
- Celebrate your successes.
For more tips, download Overcoming hoarding: The Basics from Hoarding UK.
You could consider using a decluttering service. Contact the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers or look in the phone book. Make sure they understand hoarding and will work with you to decide what to discard. Your local council may have details of community organisations that can help.
For more information about hoarding, where you can get help, and how to help someone you’re worried about, read our free advice guide.