Ending the Hoarding Stigma

In 2018, hoarding was designated by the World Health Organization as a mental disorder. This is great news for those who suffer from the condition as it promises to open up new doors for treatment and understanding. It is also a positive development for the family members who have watched their loved ones suffer and be stigmatized throughout their lives.

Some of these family members have become so involved in the cause that they have opened businesses to help hoarders or have volunteered their time for those who are affected by the disorder. And the people that are affected come from every walk of life. A hoarder could be a war veteran suffering from PTSD, or it could be a successful businessman who appears on the surface to have no internal struggle. They could be young single mothers or elderly people who don’t have many others remaining in their circle.

Unfortunately, hoarders have often been demonized by those that don’t understand the disorder. People may accuse them of being lazy or might stereotype them as not being “all there” mentally. While it is a mental disorder, being a hoarder does not mean that you lack intelligence, empathy, or compassion. In fact, it might suggest that you have heightened senses of these emotions. It is important that we strive to understand the mind of the hoarder without turning them into some sort of monster or outsider.

This is why it is so important that good people have come forward and offered their assistance to those who suffer from the condition. These organizations might slowly bring order into the person’s life so that they can see their family again, or they might simply sit and listen to the things that they have to say. The emotional connections to what one might consider “junk” are very real and are often created due to chemical imbalances in the brain. By lending an ear to a hoarder, one can begin to understand why they behave in such a peculiar way.

A Society of Stereotypes

Television shows, internet images, and short video clips have exposed many people to hoarding. Unfortunately, the purposes of most of these is not to help with treatment but rather to provide entertainment for those who aren’t afflicted by the disorder. This sensationalistic approach has been largely negative for hoarders, as they have become objects of ridicule and misunderstanding.

While these shows touch on some of the realities of hoarding, they do nothing to help end the stigma that goes along with it. They also paint a very broad picture of hoarders as a monolithic entity and ignore the differences that exist between individuals.

Not all hoarders behave in the same way, and not all hoarding situations look exactly the same. One doesn’t need to be living in abject squalor to qualify as a hoarder. As with many other mental disorders, there is are a wide range of symptoms and behaviors, and each case should be examined on a personal basis.

On the other hand, it is also important not to over-diagnose the condition. Not everybody who has a messy home or lives among a crippling amount of clutter is necessarily a hoarder. Mental illnesses such as depression and ADHD can contribute to hoarding-like behavior, but they represent an entirely different realm of disorder.

On top of that, some people are in fact lazy or have never learned how to organize their home. These are not characteristics that apply to hoarding as a disorder, but they can coexist with it in certain cases. Still, we must be careful not to conflate these things lest we end up perpetuating the negative stigma that society has created for hoarders.

How to Help a Hoarder

It can be a challenge to determine if someone is a hoarder as classified by the World Health Organization or if they are suffering from some other issues. If you want to help someone, you must learn the differences and take the proper amount of time to establish your plan of action.

The most important thing is to focus on the person rather than the objects being hoarded. It isn’t about the fact that the clutter looks aesthetically unpleasing or that you are personally uncomfortable in their home. This is about the health of the person you are assisting – both mental and physical.

Hoarding poses some serious physical health hazards for those who live among it. It can lead to airborne illness from bacterial growth, or it can be a fire hazard as clutter begins to accumulate and block escape routes. Either way, realize that you are reaching out to make your loved one safer, not to insist that they live up to your own standards.

Initially you should make it a point to let your loved one know that you are not there to take their stuff or to make them feel bad about their illness. You may consider allowing them to talk to you about their items and explain why they feel such a connection to them. You may learn some interesting things about them and might gain an understanding about their behavioral patterns and hoarding triggers.

Treating this ailment is not something that can simply be done in a quick weekend of decluttering. It could take years to find relief, but what’s important is that you are there by their side to help them through the process. Ripping their things away from them and tossing them out is not going to solve the problem and may only serve to exacerbate their hoarding behaviors in the future. If you make them feel like some sort of criminal or degenerate you are only going to distance yourself from them and lose their trust. Make it clear that you are willing to go at a pace that they are comfortable with.

You might also consider checking your local area for support groups. Many of these groups hold meetings on a weekly or monthly basis, and numerous hoarders and loved ones have reported great progress through them. As is the case with many other mental illnesses, it can be comforting to speak with others who suffer from your condition. It can help to reduce the feelings of guilt and shame that often go along with having such a disorder. The counselors there can also be excellent resources to help both you and your loved one through this difficult time.

Remember that a hoarder may not be very open to the idea of treating his or her disease – they might think that nothing is wrong with them and that you’re accusing them of terrible things. If this happens, take a step back and reassure them that you are only there to help and that you aren’t forcing them into anything.

Always keep an eye out for new research and potential treatments for hoarding. As we now know that the behavior is caused by chemical imbalances and intense brainwaves, doctors and scientists have continued to come up with treatment plans that have helped many hoarders out. Everything from cognitive behavioral therapy to transcranial magnetic stimulation have shown some results in different subjects. A hoarder may not be interested in researching these, but if you stay on top of them you can become a very valuable resource.

Patient and Positive

The key is to remain patient as you help your loved one through this long and sometimes painful process. Things are not going to become better automatically, and it is very likely that there will be some setbacks along the way. But if you are serious about helping, you will be prepared for the long journey ahead. Take joy in the little victories, even if they don’t seem like much. And share that joy with your loved one.

Keeping a positive mindset is just as important as remaining patient, because there will be days that will test you. But if you let negativity get a hold of you it could come through to your loved one who might end up feeling guilty about your involvement. The last thing you want to do is to push them away and send them into a spiral of negative behavior.

As you continue on the journey with your loved one you are sure to notice developments in yourself. Make use of your continued growth and knowledge and apply it to the hoarding situation. You will both find it very rewarding as time goes on.

A Final Word

The hoarding stigma is a damaging one that isn’t likely to be completely eradicated anytime soon. But now that we have concrete evidence and support from the World Health Organization and a variety of doctors and scientists, we can do a lot to help end the stigma and get rid of the negative stereotypes. By offering a helping hand and remaining patient, we can help ourselves understand why our loved ones are suffering from the disorder and what we can do to help them through these difficult times.