In the last few years mental health professionals and researchers are shining light on the origin and prevalence of hoarding behavior. Some research shows that hoarding has a heredity component. Studies reveal that approximately six percent of Americans show symptoms of compulsive hoarding behavior – that’s 19 million people. Hoarding Disorder is recognized as a mental health condition with degrees from mild to severe.
Hoarding behavior can begin in adolescence. It may worsen as the person with hoarding behavior ages or suffers a crisis such as divorce or death of a family member. Their brains have been shown to react differently when viewing images of something being shredded or discarded. Throwing things away can actually cause them emotional pain.
Unaware of the precarious situation they find themselves in, they rarely seek help. Yet hoarding is associated with respiratory problems, obesity, household falls, fire hazards, deteriorated social relationships and more. Help for hoarding is available. But it is not a quick fix. According to a study from the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, group treatments led by psychologists and those led by peers showed similar results – 22 percent improvement.
Common myths about hoarding are being dispelled. Collecting, categorizing and displaying items are not hoarding behavior. Messiness or a cluttered closet does not indicate hoarding. Experiencing an irrational urge to collect items in huge amounts, and feeling distress at the thought of discarding any of them whether they are useful or not, is considered hoarding behavior. Studies show that hoarders exist on all socio-economic levels and are more frequently men than women. Hoarders are not dirty, lazy people.
As a certified professional organizer and life coach, I see that when someone who exhibits hoarding behavior wants help they often rely on an exterior motivator. Perhaps they want to mend family relationships or relieve their distress. A professional organizer trained in Hoarding Disorder can help by offering emotional and physical support. What is important to the people I have worked with is that they make all decisions on what to do with their things. Sometimes they are indecisive. This requires patience. I build trust and then they often will accept support.
I see that severe hoarding can have people alter their lifestyle to accommodate for their things. They don’t have friends over to visit. Some are incredibly detail oriented and some are creative people. They can describe a potential use for every item they retain. In my opinion, family members or others close to them should not come in and clean out the space for them. It usually backfires and makes the situation worst.
Some of the best things loved ones can do for someone with a hoarding problem are to educate themselves on the disorder and find reputable resources. Two such sources are the Institute for Challenging Disorganization or the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) Hoarding Center.
Offer support, not shame. While it may be very obvious to you that there is a problem, the person may not recognize it as a problem. Take small steps and limit expectations. Whether help for hoarding comes from a sensitive, well trained professional organizer or a therapist, ongoing support is necessary to keep them from sliding back into old habits.