For a long time hoarding was thought to be just a bad habit of messy, gluttonous or undisciplined people

But since hoarding was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness, hoarding is now considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"Now," says Canada's foremost expert on the relatively new psychiatric disorder, "we have a defined psychiatric condition which means that there's a lot more time and energy and money invested in terms of understanding the problem, researching it and developing treatments for it."  Dr. Peggy Richter, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and an associate professor of psychiatry with University of Toronto says, "Hoarding is not a symptom. Hoarding is a disease. It is a disorder of the brain." 

Dr. Richter

Dr. Peggy Richter, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and an associate professor of psychiatry with University of Toronto, is an expert on hoarding. (CBC)

Richter says, "Hoarding can range on a spectrum from very mild to very severe. At the mild end are people whose clutter would clearly be more severe than most of us would consider normal, very messy and very disorderly but might still be somewhat manageable." At the other end "are people whose homes can be full literally up to the ceiling," she says.

"One lady I've worked with lives in a little tunnelled-out area in her apartment which is otherwise full right to the ceiling."

Up to four per cent of us could be hoarders, says Richter, who is also the head of the Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre in Toronto.

"I think there's still a great deal of stigma attached to mental health conditions in general," says Richter.

This is a problem particularly for people who hoard, she says, because of the shame associated with hoarding. "That makes it all the harder to seek help and open up about it, even with people who care about them."

"I think there's still a great deal of stigma attached to mental health conditions in general." –  Dr. Peggy Richter, hoarding expert

She explains that hoarders can be anyone. "They can be you, me, your neighbour, your friend, so although many people may have a stereotype in mind from seeing some of the TV shows which really dramatized extremely severe cases of hoarding, in fact hoarding is very common."

Because it's a newly recognized disorder, says Richter, "there's a lot about it we don't yet understand."

But there are enough commonalities to make a start at developing treatments.

"We see problems with time management, with organization, and that can often be misperceived by the person with the condition and those around them as laziness or lack of discipline. But the better we are getting to understand this disorder the more we're realizing that these are real deficits in planning that happen for most of us very naturally and easily that really go along with the condition and need to be targeted with treatment as well."

Five warning signs of hoarding:

Chronic disorganization

This impedes your ability to function. You can't find your keys, your purse, your wallet, your cell phone. You're chronically delayed getting out the door because of looking for things.

A lot of us are chronically disorganized, but this goes farther. It gets in the way of your normal daily activities.

Unwillingness to allow anyone into your home

This happens when the clutter has become so bad that you are too embarrassed to let anyone else see it.

Most people suffering from hoarding feel tremendously isolated by their shame. When you do let people into your home, they're taken aback by the clutter and comment on it.

'Clutter blindness'

"Clutter blindness" blocks people from realizing how their home looks to others. Hearing concerns from somebody you trust is a good warning sign.

Being distressed about your belongings

Many of us enjoy collecting. But have your accumulated belongings become a burden rather than a pleasure? Do you have no way to display all the collectibles?

If so, this has probably gone beyond understandable, healthy collecting and become hoarding.

Compulsive buying or acquiring

Do you bring home too much stuff? Perhaps it's shopping in person or online, or perhaps it's collecting free stuff.

Realizing that you're always coming home with more than you intended to pick up or with more than you need is a warning sign.

Another sign is that your purchases sit unused or unopened.

If you or someone you love thinks you need help with your hoarding habits, call the Visiting Homemakers Association and ask for the Volunteer Hoarding Support Program, 416-489-2500.

You may also call Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, 416-480-4002.

Outside the Toronto area, call your local community health centre.