Rows and rows of boxes fill the room, stacked almost to the ceiling. Every shelf lining the wall is stuffed full of knickknacks, and piles of papers cover the table. There's barely enough space to walk around the room, but every year, more and more items are added to the clutter.

While this excessive collection of "stuff" may be a health hazard and a fire hazard, those who own the items can't bear to throw anything away. They are suffering from a condition known as "hoarding," and awareness of this condition has been increasing in communities across the United States. It isn't a harmless collection, and it isn't the person's fault.

"It's important to see the stuff as a symptom that's going on with this person," said Nancy Trout, a clinical social worker at Prairie View. "It's important to dig deeper to find out the reason for the 'mess.'"

According to Mayo Clinic, hoarding is the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. Hoarding often creates cramped living conditions, and homes may be so full of clutter there are only narrow pathways leading from room to room. Some people also collect animals, caring for dozens or even hundreds of pets, often in unsanitary conditions.

Trout said hoarders also may struggle with depression and anxiety, though it's tough to tell whether the depression and anxiety caused the hoarding, or vice versa. The condition impacts people of a variety of ages and backgrounds, and there's not really a common item hoarders typically collect it's unique to each person.

In addition to being a fire hazard and a health risk, hoarding makes it tough for emergency responders who try to enter the home to provide aid to the person.

"It's a constellation of risks when there's not much space to move around," said Rich Hanley, director of the Harvey County Department on Aging.

A hidden problem

In the past six years, Hanley said he's become aware of about four or five hoarding incidents in Harvey County, but there could be much more. Hoarders tend to attempt to hide their condition, keeping it a secret from family and friends.

"It's a difficult issue, and it's really unknown," he said. "It's a problem that no one really knows how many are affected."

"Animal hoarding, just by the nature of ... the mental illness that goes along with it, is really kept 'hush, hush," said Kevin Stubbs, executive director of Caring Hands Humane Society. "It could be going on in your neighborhood, and you don't even know about it."

Trout said hoarding may start with a compulsion to acquire more "stuff" through finding "bargains" at garage sales or seeing items "on sale" at the store and purchasing more than the person really needs. By the time the person realizes the habit has become an obsession, they may not be able to stop. They also may become offended if people tell them there is something wrong.

"People don't think all their stuff is a problem," Hanley said. "It's very personal. Nobody wants someone to take away their things."

Animal hoarding can bring up its own set of issues and can pose health risks to both the owners and the animals themselves.

Hoarded animals tend to be sickly and not well cared for, though this neglect isn't always intentional, said Stubbs. Hoarders believe the animals are better off living with them than on the streets, and they do love the animals. However, due to the large number of hoarded animals, the owner simply can't care for them properly.

Signs to look for

So, how do you know if a family member or a friend has become a hoarder?

Trout said there may be a hoarding problem going on in someone's house if you start seeing clutter in the front yard (a sign the house may be too full to hold more things); if the windows of the house are covered, preventing others from seeing inside; or if the person is reluctant to let people inside the house.

If you see any of these signs, "there's a good chance that something's going on that you don't know about," Trout said.

Once a person recognizes there is a problem, Trout recommends starting with a support group. It's a non-threatening environment where the hoarder can meet with other hoarders and share their experience.

Then, look for ways to begin tackling the clutter. Trout suggests breaking the issue into a series of small tasks. Perhaps the person could decide to start recycling all junk mail right away, instead of adding it to the piles of paper inside the house. Or, pick one bookshelf to clear out. It's also a good idea to ask a trusted friend or family member to serve as a "cheerleader," someone who will encourage and support the hoarder as they begin to clean out their collection of stuff.

Those who are struggling with hoarding, or know someone who's struggling with hoarding, can contact Prairie View at 284-6400 or (800) 362-0180. If the hoarding has to do with animals in particular, contact Caring Hands at 283-0839.