Using virtual reality to treat hoarding

[From The Ottawa Citizen]

[Image: Psychologist Kieron O’Connor, shown with a computer screen loaded with 3-D images from a hoarder’s stash, is conducting research into virtual reality therapies at the University of Quebec Outaouais in Gatineau.]

Hoarding: The virtual reality of clutter

By Maria Cook September 28, 2010

Psychologist Kieron O’Connor has compiled a list 30 pages long of different objects he has seen hoarders accumulate. The list includes newspapers, empty cornflake packages and toilet paper rolls.

“It’s a very difficult problem to treat,” he says. “People collect things and they can’t get rid of them. They build up at home and often take over so the person has no living space.”

O’Connor, with two colleagues, is studying whether virtual reality could be a possible treatment for hoarding. It is believed to be the first study of its kind in Canada. It takes place at the University of Quebec Outaouais (UQO) in Gatineau. The university is one of the few in North America doing research in cyberpsychology.

In the early 1990s, clinical psychologists recognized the potential of virtual reality and began incorporating it into their practices. It has helped people overcome fear of heights and spiders, for example.

“Hoarding has only recently recognized as a problem,” says O’Connor, a professor at UQO and director of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Tic Disorder Studies Centre at the Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital in Montreal. “It’s more prevalent than we think.”

The study takes place in a small office at the university equipped with a computer on a table and an ergonomic office chair, surrounded by a black velvet curtain. Study subjects can also try 3-D vision goggles for a hyper-realistic experience. But it can cause cyber-sickness because the environment moves with head movements.

“Even without the goggles, the enclosed space and monitor are just as good,” O’Connor says.

A generic home interior is loaded with images from the person’s home to create the virtual environment. The subject practises throwing things out; first by clicking and dragging an object into a bin on the computer and then doing the same action at home in real life.

“We want to see if people can get absorbed in a virtual environment,” he explains. “We’re testing their reaction and emotions. If we are able to replicate the same emotions they experience in a real environment then I think that will be a good intermediary step to making decisions at home.”

People tend to feel uncomfortable. “They have great difficulty saying goodbye,” he says. “If they feel anxious, we see how long it lasts and how with habituation the feeling decreases.

“When people do get rid of things, they quite often forget about them.”

The participants get to see what a tidy house looks like. Most have become almost blind to their clutter. “It’s hard for them to imagine what the space will be like.” Most hoarders seek treatment only when there is a crisis, such as threat of eviction, a cleanup order from public health officials or family breakdown.

One woman in O’Connor’s therapy group in Montreal has lost her family; her husband and children went to live in another house. He knows of people who rent storage spaces for their overflow or live elsewhere while maintaining a house filled with clutter.

“Hoarders don’t consider they’ve got a problem. They get a bit of a high from buying and they get emotionally attached to objects.”

More than a year ago, O’Connor started a monthly therapy group in Gatineau. Typically 12 to 14 people attend. “I’ve learned that you can do therapy in a group for hoarders. That’s fairly new. It’s not textbook stuff.”

The age of attendees ranges from 25 to 71. They include teachers, a bookseller, a social worker, a repairman and a nurse.

“A couple of people are doing very well,” he says. “Since coming to the group they have managed to change a lot of their habits of collecting stuff.”

There’s a big difference between collectors and hoarders, he says. “Real collectors go to meetings, win prizes. Hoarders don’t win any prizes. If anything they get the booby prize; they often get kicked out of houses.”

Some say they are recycling or not contributing to landfills, but he rebuts that too. “Hoarding stuff that’s not used is ecologically wasteful.”

What O’Connor really wants is to prevent hoarding; to catch what he calls the “beginner hoarder.”

“If we act then, it will save a lifetime of misery.”

The study is sponsored by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. So far, five people are in the study and O’Connor plans to recruit another 10. It wraps up at the end of the year.

Hoarding disorder

About this series: Almost all of us have too much stuff, but hoarders acquire — and keep — way too much. Their compulsion breaks up families and is hazardous to health and safety. Hoarding has been called “the disorder of the decade.” And it could soon be classified as a psychiatric illness.

If you have a concern about hoarding, one place to call is the City of Ottawa public health unit.

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