What’s Behind the Public Fascination with Hoarding?

In 2010, 17 people were injured and more than 1,200 were displaced when a six-alarm fire gutted a public housing apartment tower in Toronto. The fire was ignited when a resident threw a cigarette butt onto a balcony overflowing with paper.

The incident generated widespread media interest and public anxiety in Toronto about the hazards of hoarding, according to Katie Kilroy-Marac, PhD, an anthropology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough who studies the history of psychiatric thought.

It also prompted a new line of research for her.

“Over the past 10 to 15 years, hoarding has come to loom large in the public imagination” she said, with popular television shows, books and more devoted to the subject. And mental health professionals are paying attention as well. In 2013, with the publication of the DSM-5, hoarding was for the first time officially classified as its own disorder, rather than a symptom of other diagnoses such as obsessive compulsive disorder or schizophrenia.

“It’s clearly having a moment of sorts. But why?” Kilroy-Marac asked.

She explored that question in a talk at the 2015 APA convention in Toronto entitled “On the recent emergence of hoarding as a mental illness, public health hazard and media spectacle.” The new interest in hoarding, she believes, is just one aspect of a much larger interest in our own relationship with “stuff,” how we acquire it and how we get rid of it.

It dovetails with newfound public interest in minimalist lifestyles like the “tiny house” movement, the rise of professional organizers, and growing concern about of the ecological impact of consumer products, she says.

She offers some thoughts on the subject:

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