The adverse social, physical, psychological, and financial effects of hoarding behaviour can represent serious harm to the person suffering from the disorder as well as their family. Yet many people don’t consider it a mental health or a medical disorder at all.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) officially recognized hoarding as its own mental disorder. According to the DSM-5, hoarding disorder is characterized by the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. It was included in the DSM-5 because research has shown it to be a distinct disorder requiring distinct treatment.
Dr. Sheila Woody, Professor of Psychology at UBC and Director of the Centre for Collaborative Research on Hoarding, researches the cognitive, social, emotional, and community aspects of hoarding behaviour. Her lab’s current research focuses on community-based responses to hoarding. In order to study community-based interventions, Dr. Woody’ research team collaborates with several community agencies in Canada and the USA.
In our Lab of the Month feature, Dr. Woody discusses her research, her interdisciplinary collaborations, and what factors may lead to hoarding behaviour.
To start with, how would you characterize hoarding?
When we talk about hoarding, it isn’t just someone who is messy or disorganized. Hoarding is when you have so much stuff that the volume prevents you from functioning in your home, like not being able to use your stove or open your front door. The amount of stuff poses safety risks such as fire, impeded escape routes, and pest management issues, which is why studying hoarding is so important.
What’s the lab’s main research focus?
One major branch of our research is aimed at uncovering the cognitive differences between people with hoarding disorder and healthy adults, so we are administering a range of tests that look at things like decision making, memory, and attention to gain clues about which cognitive functions might differentiate these groups. Another branch involves detailing the interventions by the City of Vancouver and other community organizations for hoarding cases when lease conditions or health and fire codes are violated, as well as the outcomes associated with these interventions.
What kinds of questions do you try to answer?
We are studying the psychological phenomenon of hoarding at an individual level. For example, why do some people choose to keep rather than discard objects that most people would throw away – what is it about the objects or their decision making processes that causes this? Does hoarding involve stronger cognitive biases towards owned possessions (i.e., a greater “endowment effect”)?
At the same time, we are studying community-based interventions for hoarding. What are the most effective ways for communities (e.g., fire departments, housing providers) to handle hoarding cases where intervention is required to protect both the individual with hoarding disorder and members of the surrounding community?
When and why did you first develop an interest in hoarding behaviour?
I had a long background studying anxiety-based disorders when a colleague approached me with a proposal to collaborate on the study of hoarding in the Downtown Eastside. Hoarding is an intriguing problem for me to study, because its complexity leads to a wide variety of research questions. The problem feels very important to solve because people can lose their housing or have their health and safety threatened due to hoarding behaviour.
How can we better understand the thinking that might contribute to hoarding behaviour?
Part of hoarding involves an emotional attachment to possessions, but there may be attention and memory processes related to objects that contribute as well. It’s important to note that we all have possessions we keep for sentimental reasons, but with hoarding these attachments may extend to items that most people would throw away such as old newspapers, empty food containers, and clothes that don’t fit anymore. People with hoarding disorder might be seen as falling on the extreme end of a continuum that also includes more ordinary ways of thinking about objects.
How would you describe the personality of the lab?
Because of the collaborative nature of our research, we tend to have to coordinate a lot with people outside our lab, which is why it’s so important that we are friendly individuals! Also, although more people in our lab are cat lovers, we get along well with our dog-loving colleagues.
What are other members of your lab working on?
|Kirstie Kellman-McFarlane (PhD Student): Kirstie is a fourth year Ph.D. student in the clinical psychology program. Kirstie is currently collecting data for her dissertation, completing clinical practica, and applying for internship. Her research seeks to better understand the decision-making process of people who experience extreme difficulty discarding household possessions.|
|May Luu (MA Student): May is a second year MA student in the clinical psychology program. In addition, May administers cognitive tests and diagnostic assessments for the cognition study. Her master’s thesis examines why the majority of hoarded homes remain functional and clean, while others develop problems such as filth and household disrepair.|
|Kate Kysow (MA Student): Kate is just beginning her first year as a Clinical Psychology MA student. She is interested in the Community Psychology side of hoarding and currently works with the Vancouver Hoarding Action Response Team.|
|Peter Lenkic (Research Coordinator): Peter is managing and analyzing data for the lab’s studies and is also involved in the cognition study. He is interested in learning about the cognitive factors that distinguish individuals with hoarding disorder.|
|Brent Stewart (Research Assistant): Brent is helping out with recruiting participants over the phone as well as with the study on cognitive functioning. He is interested in the reasons why many people with hoarding disorder acquire more stuff than the average person and in the different ways people with hoarding disorder value objects.|
|Patricia Jiang (Research Assistant): Patricia is currently assisting with the lab’s Ownership and Decision-Making, and Cognition studies, as well as creating posters for participant recruitment. She is interested in the relationship between hoarding behaviours and self-regulation.|
|Lucy (Lab Mascot): Lucy is Dr. Woody’s 6-year old Cavalier King Charles/Cocker Spaniel cross. As a puppy, she completed certificates in both Obedience 101 and Obedience 102. Her current interests focus on chasing balls, especially in open fields. In her spare time, she eats sticks.|
The lab works with a diverse team of research collaborators. Can you tell us how the interdisciplinary relationships compliment and build off each other?
Our lab regularly collaborates with neuropsychologists, a social worker and a sociologist, community agencies and housing providers. It is enlightening to hear the same case of hoarding described by a sociologist, a fire chief, health workers, and psychologists, as different details of the case get emphasized. This multidisciplinary work also highlights the need for more a coordinated system for helping people with hoarding.
If someone is experiencing hoarding behaviours, what can they do to get help? How can you help a loved one with hoarding?
Often family members are the first to offer help to the individual. However, it’s important to understand that people with hoarding feel the same way about their possessions as most people do – they just have a lot more stuff. This means that it can be incredibly traumatic for the individual to be forced to throw-out all their possessions. In the face of this, it’s best to use a respectful and compassionate approach and aim for realistic goals like reducing risks rather than creating a perfectly tidy place.
How can people get involved and learn more about hoarding?
A great way to do so would be to participate in our research! We are currently running a couple of studies, including an online study. To find out more and see if you’re eligible to participate, you can contact us at hoarding[at]psych.ubc.ca or 604-822-8025, and check out our website (hoarding.psych.ubc.ca) for more information about our research.