How to Know If Someone You Love is a Hoarder (and What to Do About It)

Have you ever watched a television program about a hoarder and wondered why on earth they hang on to all of that junk, even as the rest of their life seems to be crumbling all around them?

Have you ever watched a television program about a hoarder and wondered why on earth they hang on to all of that junk, even as the rest of their life seems to be crumbling all around them? The truth is, hoarding isn’t really a choice, nor is it a habit that a person can simply stop once someone else has talked some sense into them. Hoarding is a mental health issue, and handling it can be extremely tricky. If you suspect that your spouse, parent, child, sibling, another relative, or close friend is a hoarder, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn about hoarding disorder and how you can help someone who has it.

What Exactly Is Hoarding?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes hoarding disorder as “the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value…due to a perceived need to save the items and to the distress associated with discarding them.”

In simpler terms, people with hoarding disorder find it hard to throw things away, even if the items would be considered garbage by others. This can lead to cluttered, chaotic, and unhygienic living conditions as well as psychosocial difficulties such as isolation, marital discord, or rifts between family members.

Hoarding disorder is classed under Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. 

The Symptoms of Hoarding Disorder

As with OCD, hoarding disorder can take a variety of forms depending on the individual. However, some of the symptoms commonly seen in hoarders include:

  • Emotional attachment to particular objects
  • The inability to discard possessions even when they are no longer useful
  • Holding on to items “just in case” they are someday needed
  • Anxiety at the thought of discarding possessions
  • Indecision about how to organize items or where to keep them
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of objects but unable to reduce that number
  • Reluctance to let other people remove or even touch their items

As the hoarding behavior continues, the living space is gradually reduced as piles of clutter encroach and eventually overtake little-used rooms, kitchen counters, tables, and other surfaces, and even the hallways. 

Some hoarders will kick the can down the road by moving the belongings to a backyard shed or a self-storage unit rather than truly disposing of them. 

“We see situations in which a renter fills up a unit with ordinary household objects that, to anyone else’s eye, would look like trash,” says Terry Drayton, founder, and CEO of Boston storage company Livible. However, to the hoarder, all of these items are valuable and cannot be parted with.

Hoarding’s Effect on Physical Health

Precarious piles of boxes and bags, stacked newspapers or books, and even garbage such as fast-food wrappers, paper plates, and empty soda or coffee cups can present a real danger to the hoarder and his or her family. In many cases, emergency personnel would not be able to access, treat, or remove a resident of the house.

Hoarding may lead to allergies from dust or mold spores, viral and bacterial illnesses due to lack of running water and general sanitation, trips, and falls, and other physical problems. Particularly if there are stacks of newspapers, magazines, books, or paperwork, hoarding is a fire hazard. There is also a danger presented by human or animal urine and feces that are not properly disposed of.

The Emotional Toll Taken by Hoarding

Naturally, the hoarding behavior also has a profound emotional impact on everyone involved. Upon learning of the conditions in the household, officials may remove underage children from a hoarder’s home. Other times, spouses and adult children of hoarders become estranged because they can no longer handle the disorder and the damage it does. 

Hoarders often suffer embarrassment or shame related to their condition. They often try to keep others from entering their home, so not only does their social life suffer, but broken appliances, plumbing problems, and other repair jobs go unaddressed. 

How to Help A Loved One with Hoarding Disorder

Hoarding isn’t so much about the tangible items themselves as it is about the hoarder’s perception of and emotions surrounding the items. For that reason, it’s not enough to simply remove all the clutter and start fresh. The mental health disorder underlying it must be addressed in order for the home to remain clean and clutter-free.

Rather than becoming engaged in a never-ending argument about what items should be thrown away or whether they will ever be useful, family members who want to help the hoarder should seek professional counseling. 

There are psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental healthcare providers who specialize in OCD and/or hoarding disorder. They can help get to the root of the problem; once that treatment is underway, cleanup of the property can begin to take place.

In the Final Analysis

Unfortunately, you cannot help a hoarder by simply throwing away all of their possessions. In fact, such an action is likely to be perceived by the hoarder as a betrayal, and may even the situation worse. Instead, it is necessary to understand the reasons that hoarders have for accumulating possessions and refusing to part with them. This requires compassion and patience, but supporting your family member or friend as they work through difficult issues is the best possible gift you can give them.

Have you ever known a hoarder? Do you have any tips for coping with mental illness in a relative or friend? Have your say in the comment section below.

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