Mental Health Awareness: Compulsive Hoarding

May is Mental Health Awareness month. To mark the occasion, I will be blogging about mental illness. The stigma associated with mental illness still persists. The only way to get rid of this stigma is through awareness and education. Because of this stigma, many people are too ashamed and embarrassed to seek treatment for a condition that is completely treatable. Untreated mental illness costs our economy billions of dollars a year. The human cost of untreated mental illness is unknown.

Because the scope of this is much bigger than intended, this series will extend beyond May.

Most of us are familiar with the reality shows Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive.  Both shows focus on people who are compulsive hoarders.  Each show begins with background information on the hoarder, their daily life, how their hoarding is affecting their families, and a tipping point where the hoarder has no choice but to clean up their mess.  Usually a tipping point involves social services, the city health department, or the fire department giving notice that the house and property must be cleaned up or the hoarder’s house will be condemned and the hoarder will be evicted.

The programs focus on the actual clean-up and not the act of hoarding itself.  A psychologist who specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorder and compulsive hoarding is brought in, along with a professional organizer and a clean-up crew.   The audience does get to see how the hoarder reacts when these people come in and start the clean-up process.  The psychiatrist often acts as a mediator and serves as an understanding and sympathetic figure to the hoarder when the family doesn’t know how to react.

I watch the show Hoarders online.  I’m both fascinated and horrified by what I see.  It’s a difficult show to turn away from because I will often wonder what would compel someone to live like that or even how someone could live in such a filthy house with no working plumbing.  If you have never seen the show, some of the homes featured are absolutely filthy, especially if the person hoards animals or food.  I feel such a mixture of sympathy and repulsion when I watch this show.

I have a suspicion that someone I know is a hoarder and I’ve seen some of the behaviors in members of this person’s family as well.  I know that family member had a very unstable upbringing and the only stability in their lives were their material possessions, since those possessions were the only sure thing in their lives.  I also know that since the family member left that unstable home environment and went into a stable one, the need for them to hold onto things lessened.

Because I know this, I know that something happened to this person on television that prompts them to hang onto everything, and this is why I’m sympathetic to them.  Even though I know the effects of depression and how normal tasks can seem overwhelming,  I still have trouble wrapping my brain around why someone would live in such a filthy house.

What is Compulsive Hoarding?

Compulsive hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is a type of anxiety disorder.  It is not classified under DSM-IV as its own illness; however efforts are being made to have it included as its own disorder.  It is estimated that approximately 700,000 to 1.4 million Americans are compulsive hoarders.  This compulsion starts in childhood or during the teen years and becomes severe in adulthood.

A compulsive hoarder has a fear of throwing things away.  This fear can stem from perfectionism.  In fact, many compulsive hoarders are perfectionists.   They are so afraid of throwing out the wrong thing, they keep it.   This fear often triggers an anxiety attack and in order to ease their anxiety, they keep the item.

Compulsive hoarding can run in families.  It often accompanies other mental disorders such as depression, social anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder or problems with impulse control.

Compulsive hoarders rarely recognize they have a problem.  In fact, many of the hoarders shown on television don’t even see the mess that surrounds them.  They also cannot smell nor have any reaction to the dust, animal dander, the smell of rotting food, the presence of rodents, or the smell of human and animal waste.

It is important to know that compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder.  A compulsive hoarder isn’t just a bad housekeeper or lazy.  There is a real mental disorder that drives this need to acquire and hold onto things.  A “lazy” or “bad” housekeeper knows they should clean or pick up, but they are either too busy or lack the motivation they need to get up and do it.  A compulsive hoarder doesn’t see that their house is a mess.  That is the difference.

Signs and Symptoms of Compulsive Hoarding

Not all hoarding is as extreme as shown on television.   You may know someone or live with someone that has a tendency to hoard.  There are signs and symptoms of compulsive hoarding.  Children can show signs of hoarding as well.  If you suspect you may know someone who may be a compulsive hoarder, here are the signs.

  • Cluttered living spaces
  • The inability to discard items
  • Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines, or junk mail.
  • Moving items from one pile to another without discarding anything
  • Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items including trash.
  • Difficulty in managing daily activities, including decision making.  The hoarder often procrastinates.
  • Difficulty in organzing.
  • Shame or embarrassment
  • Excessive attachment to possessions
  • Limited or no social interactions.

A hoarder typically saves items they believe they will need later.  On television, the statement “But I might need this” is heard quite a bit.  A hoarder will also hoard items with some sort of emotional attachment for them.

Hoarding also has an effect on the family.  There is a website called Children of Hoarders which serves as a source of support for children of parents who hoard.  Children of hoarders often feel ashamed of their parents and their house.  Often times, they have few friends because they feel too embarrassed to invite friends over to their houses.  There are also trust issues, especially when the parent’s hoarding takes over the child’s space, such as a bedroom.  In some families, adult children become estranged from their hoarding parents because they are at their wits’ end.  Sometimes, the children of hoarders feel as if they are responsible for their parent’s condition.  Other children of hoarders feel as if their parent’s care more about the stuff than about them, which also fosters resentment towards the parent.

If conditions in the home are bad enough, CPS may get involved and remove minor children from the home.  In the case of animal hoarding, animal control or an animal rescue group may get involved.

Animal hoarding is where the person acquires dozens of pets or other animals and does not care for them.  Although people may laugh and joke about “the crazy cat lady”, there is nothing humorous about the condition these animals are living in.  On one episode of Hoarders, a woman had numerous cats living in a house that also contained an unimaginable amount of  human and feline feces and urine. When the cleaning crew came in her house and started on the bathroom, one of the cats was so startled, it ran out of the house and into the street where it lay down and died right there.  It was believed that the cat was so used to the ammonia smell and the smell of waste, the cleaning process in the house was such a shock to the cat’s system, it couldn’t handle it.

These animals are often found with sores, living in filth, or diseases.  Animal control removes them and if the animals can recover, they are often adopted out.

Another type of hoarding is food hoarding.  A food hoarder will buy and keep food, often well past its expiration date.  The food hoarder will not throw it out.  Even if the food is moldy or obviously spoiled, the food hoarder sees nothing wrong with it.  Food hoarding may stem from past hunger due to poverty or their parent’s poverty.  The person may be so anxious about going hungry or not having enough to eat, they hoard food.

How Can You Help A Compulsive Hoarder

If you know a family member is a compulsive hoarder or you suspect someone is a compulsive hoarder, there are a few things you can do.

  • Talk to their doctor.  If someone is living in filth, they may have respiratory problems or other diseases exacerbated by the conditions in their house.  Informing their doctor may clue him in if the other person seeks treatment for a physical problem.
  • You may have to report the person to the authorities.  If the condition of their house poses a threat of danger to the occupant, you may have to call adult protective services or ask the police to do a welfare check on your loved one.
  • You may have to report the person to child protective services if there are children living in their house.  This may be difficult for you to do, and you may be afraid of angering or alienating them,  but remember that it is in the child’s best interest to live in a safe and healthy home  You’re also doing this for the good for the person doing the hoarding, too.
  • If animals are involved, you may have to report them to animal control to have the animals removed.
  • Educate yourself about hoarding, anxiety disorders or OCD.
  • Be patient with the hoarder.  Remember that the act of throwing things away is a trigger for an anxiety attack.   Show them kindness and don’t push them beyond what they can do.
  • Help find a therapist for them.
  • Reward them for any progress they have made in cleaning.

It’s also very crucial to remember that there are some common traps people fall into when they deal with a person who has severe anxiety or hoarding.

  • Avoid doing the cleaning for them.
  • Be mindful of the comments you make to them and about them.
  • Don’t use words that devalue their possessions such as “trash” or “garbage”, even if those possessions are obviously trash or garbage.  They don’t see these possessions as trash or garbage.
  • Don’t argue with them.
  • Don’t use judgmental language with them.  Don’t call them names like “lazy” or “slob”.  or This only adds to the shame they already feel.

Remember, a hoarder doesn’t see that they have a problem.  Unlike television, if you intervene, you won’t have a crew show up to help deal with the clean-up process nor will you have a psychiatrist step in to act as a mediator.   You can’t force a hoarder to change unless there is a threat to their health and safety.  In a perfect world, it shouldn’t come to that point, but because the hoarder doesn’t see a problem and because of their own shame, it often comes to that point.

For more information or support, check out the following websites:

Psych Central’s 10 Things You Should Know about Compulsive Hoarding

Children of Hoarders

Mayo Clinic’s article on Compulsive Hoarding

 Hartford Health’s Anxiety Disorder’s Center: Compulsive Hoarding.

3 Comments

  1. These shows scare the you know what out of me. OCD runs in our family and my youngest has really freaked me out with his need for stuff and his desire to hang on to everything! I just hope it doesn’t end up like the shows. 

    Reply
  2. I have never known a hoarder….well, let me correct myself….I am unaware that anyone I’ve known has hoarded.   It seems so foreign to me when I see it on TV.  I think how can they be like that.  But I know it’s quite out of their control unless they get help.    Good post Kathy.

    Reply
  3. Yes I think these people can be helped with years of supervision from caring professionals.

    Reply

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