When Throwing Gets Difficult: Why People Hoard

SINGAPORE: Say “hoarder” and images of stacked newspapers and boxes, little space to move around and, in some cases, cockroaches scurrying around come to mind.

These are the kind of houses that Habitat for Humanity Singapore walked into and tried to turn around. However, decluttering them does not mean ridding them entirely of unwanted items.

“When you use the word declutter, we always assume we are able to completely declutter the hoarder, but in our experience we haven’t seen too many cases where this happens for those who are badly hoarding stuff” , said Mr. Yong Teck. Meng, national director of the housing charity.

It’s a “huge challenge,” he told CNA938.

“Every item you want to throw away, you have to get permission from the hoarder. Maybe about an hour, two hours after the decluttering activity starts, the hoarder will tell you that they’re not able to keep going because it’s very traumatic for him, so you have to stop,” he said.

What is more common is to reduce the severity of hoarding to some extent, Yong said.

Among the houses his organization tried to improve was one in Jurong that was so blocked off that its occupant had to climb a small mountain of items just to get in. In another house, 33 visits over a year and a half led to the evacuation of only a third of its contents.

WHY DO PEOPLE ACCUSE?

The root cause of hoarding behavior is complex, Minister of State for National Development Sim Ann told Parliament on Monday (September 12). She was answering several questions from MPs on the issue which came to the fore after a fire in a congested house left one person dead.

The Singapore Civil Defense Force said at the time that the firefighting and incident mitigation operation was very difficult as the entire unit contained “a large volume of tightly packed debris wall to wall”.

Hoarding could be a symptom of underlying mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or develop after trauma or deep grief, she said.

Authorities are working on 260 active hoarding cases that remain “protracted and unresolved” as it is difficult to get cooperation from hoarders to declutter, Ms Sim added.

Hoarding could also be linked to sentimental reasons.

Mr Sng Hock Lin, a PhD student at Singapore University of Social Sciences who conducted a study on hoarding behavior, said he encountered an elderly person who picked up stuffed toys and kept them wrapped in plastic bags.

She had managed to accumulate discarded carnival tickets to retrieve the toys. When asked why, she said she was deprived of such toys during her difficult childhood, Mr Sng said.

“For her, it’s a lot of childhood memories that she was dealing with and also the emotional connection with those stuffed toys,” he said.

HOW THINGS ACCUMULATE

Hoarders may find it difficult to throw away or part with their belongings, regardless of the items’ true value, said clinical psychologist Stephanie Chan of Annabelle Psychology.

She gave examples of items like pieces of paper and plastic containers.

They may think they should save the items for next time or think of returning them for a small profit, she said.

“What happens in a very cluttered environment is that these things start to invade the environment in a very disorganized way that you don’t know where that box that you kept maybe two weeks ago , disappeared,” she said.

“So you’re just thinking to yourself, maybe I need to grab another one just in case I need it again next time.”

The hoarder also struggles to perceive what has value, Yong said.

“To us it may look like a piece of junk, but to the hoarder it could be as valuable as a pound of gold,” he said.

“They keep collecting stuff and they keep hoarding for no conceivable purpose.”

However, a suggestion that the items should be discarded could cause a “significant amount of distress” to those people, Ms Chan said.

Such distress would be a distinguishing factor between someone who simply doesn’t have time to clean and someone who suffers from hoarding disorder, a mental health condition, Ms Chan said.

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