PETALING JAYA - Compulsive hoarding is a distressing personality disorder that affects about 2% of the population, according to psychiatrists.
Over 20% of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) also exhibit similar symptoms.
"It can occur in people with schizophrenia and dementia," said Malaysian Psychiatric Association (MPA) president Dr Abdul Kadir Abu Bakar, adding that compulsive hoarding has nothing to do with either genetics or material deprivation earlier in life.
"A brain scan reveals that compulsive hoarders have lower levels of activity in the brain's caudate nucleus, compared to those who do not hoard," he said, citing a 2002 International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology study. (The caudate nucleus is associated with emotions, learning, decision-making and orientation.)
Dr Abdul Kadir said hoarders usually held on to trivial things like bills, receipts, newspapers, old clothes and broken ornaments.
"In more extreme cases, hoarders stash rubbish or even stray animals until their living condition is affected.
"These things are junk to most people but a hoarder does not know how to place a value on them.
"Throwing anything away is a traumatic experience for them," he said, adding that family members should bring the hoarder in for an assessment before the situation becomes worse.
Psychologist Dr Adnan Omar agreed, adding that compulsive hoarding was "treatable" through third party intervention, via medication or behaviour therapy.
"Therapists would go to their homes to teach them organising skills," he said.
"They will slowly do away with the clutter - starting from the least important. That way they can still feel they are in control of their possessions," he said.
Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, when asked on treatment options available for hoarders in the country, said the ministry would look into the matter.
"This group of people should be given assistance and treatment, if possible," he said.
MCA Public Service and Complaints department head Datuk Seri Michael Chong said cases of hoarders were quite rare but he advised them to seek help.