The topic of hoarding might make good fodder for TV program ratings and mindless entertainment for viewers. But for people who struggle with hoarding, it's a very serious subject.

We all know people who collect or hang on to things, and may fondly refer to them as pack rats. However, collectors are proud of their possessions; they keep them organized and well maintained, and the objects are a source of pleasure and satisfaction.

Hoarders, on the other hand, accumulate stuff, such as newspapers, magazines, books, letters, and lists, sometimes moving them around but never getting rid of them. Most of these things are, and will always be, worthless. Over time, their belongings overwhelm their living space, causing them embarrassment, stress, social isolation, and even physical harm. Some people even hoard pets. Sadly, these animals are generally unhealthy and live in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

In the U.S., about five percent, or 15 million Americans suffer from hoarding. Scientists believe hoarding is about 50 percent genetic. It often occurs with other mental problems, such as mood disorders, social phobias, and personality disorders, and some experts consider it a subcategory of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Risk Factors of Hoarding

There are several common risk factors, including age. Hoarding tends to start in adolescence and worsen over time. Hoarders often have a history of sexual assault or a history of abuse and traumatic life experience. They frequently cite loss in their lives. It's not clear whether hoarding leads to social isolation or social isolation leads to hoarding. In an interview, one patient call hoarding C.H.A.O.S. or Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome.

Many hoarders don't believe they have a problem, and mental health experts are still not sure what treatment is most effective. So far, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the most common treatment. During therapy, patients explore their reasons for hoarding and learn good decision-making skills. An important element of therapy is to have a professional work with the patient to help them gradually dispose of excessive belongings. It can be a very difficult process. Medications such as antidepressants have had mixed results in treating hoarders.

If you know someone who is a hoarder, encourage him to seek professional help. You may even need to contact local authorities, such as the police, fire, or public health departments, to ensure the person's safety (for example, large volumes of paper pose a fire hazard), or animal welfare if pets are involved.

Sources: "Quiz: Are You a Hoarder?" Web. 12 October 2004.

Anderson, Pauline. "Genetics Most Important Factor in Compulsive Hoarding." American Journal of Psychiatry. Medscape Medical News. Web. August 17, 2009.

International OCD Foundation, Hoarding Center. Web.