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April 05, 2019

How to identify and help someone with a hoarding disorder

Mental Health Hoarding

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For many people, tossing out old junk, donating unused clothes, and keeping the house organized is simple. For others, this isn’t so easy. When people struggle with severe emotional attachment to their belongings, keeping things clean and organized feels impossible—an emotionally draining, unwinnable battle.

There’s a name for this compulsion to save and collect things on a massive scale, regardless of their perceived value: hoarding. It’s important to keep in mind that this condition is a lot different from being a run-of-the-mill clutterbug. Hoarding is complex and sometimes dangerous mental disorder that affects roughly 1.4 million people in the United States alone. It can lead to unhealthy living conditions for anyone in the home (including pets). An excessive accumulation of clutter – whether it be old paperwork or garbage – can cause tripping hazards for the elderly, trigger asthma, and result in unsanitary conditions for food preparation. Because there’s often judgement cast upon those suffering from hoarding disorder, people struggling with the illness might hide it from their loved ones or isolate themselves completely.

If someone suspects their loved one may be suffering from hoarding disorder, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Recognize the symptoms

Because symptoms of mental illness can be more nuanced than those of physical illness, it’s sometimes hard to identify the red flags of a hoarding disorder. Being educated and aware of significant symptoms can allow someone to appropriately help a friend or family member struggling with compulsive hoarding. Symptoms to look out for include:

  1. Excessively acquiring unnecessary objects or items that cannot be appropriately stored.
  2. Persistent resistance to get rid of unneeded possessions, regardless of their value or usefulness.
  3. A resulting accumulation of possessions that clutter the home and drastically compromise a space’s intended use.
  4. Keeping certain rooms off limits to visitors and guests, or not letting visitors into their home at all.
  5. Struggling with traits like indecisiveness, perfectionism, avoidance, procrastination, and difficulty planning or organizing.
  6. People suffering with hoarding disorder amass a variety of objects, depending on the person or environment. Common objects hoarders refuse to discard include but are not limited to:
  7. Paper, including old paperwork, receipts, newspapers, coupons, and advertisements
  8. Clothing, often resulting in piles of clothes that block doorways or fill rooms
  9. Garbage or rotten food
  10. Containers like boxes and plastic bags

Understand the causes

Because hoarding can be so difficult to fathom, understanding its root causes can help you avoid passing judgement on those suffering from this disorder. It also spreads awareness of possible hoarding triggers, allowing you to keep an eye out for friends and family members who may be more susceptible to the disorder. While there’s not always a definable origin or cause, hoarding often affects people who:

  1. Are over 55—older adults (55+) are three times more likely to suffer from hoarding disorder
  2. Have a co-occurring mental health disorder, like obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia
  3. Have experienced a traumatic loss, like the sudden death of a family member or a destruction of property in a natural disaster
  4. Have family members who also suffer from hoarding

How to help

Watching a loved one suffer is always difficult—but they don’t have to suffer alone. Proper support is a game-changer for someone trying to tackle their hoarding disorder. But keep in mind—the wrong support, despite good intentions, can be destructive and traumatic to a hoarder. Here are some do’s and don’ts when offering assistance to someone with hoarding disorder:

  1. Encourage the person to seek professional help. Many psychologists focus on hoarding specifically, and often work alongside a professional organizer to make a plan of action.
  2. Help move items or clean spaces—only if the person asks. Removing items from a hoarder’s house without their permission can intensify the already destructive hoarding behaviors.
  3. Celebrate small victories, like throwing out or donating even a single item. While it might not seem boast worthy to anyone else, validating these small steps encourages the healing process.
  4. Reflect on whether any personal actions might be enabling their illness, like giving the hoarder money to go shopping, or letting the person store objects in space that does not belong to them.

If you or someone you know is suffering from hoarding disorder, take the first steps to recovery by checking out the following sources:


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