The Stigma Behind the Clutter: 7 Myths About Hoarding

Desk stacked with bags and boxes of papersIf you’ve watched television in the last few years, you’ve likely come across a reality show about hoarding. Rather than truly educating the public on the condition, reality TV tends to dramatize the issue, spread misinformation, and increase stigma.

Hoarding reality shows can be misleading, as they often showcase only the most extreme cases of hoarding. Hoarding is a broad term that covers a vast range of circumstances. For example, a person with a hoarding problem may have difficulty getting rid of possessions but still have far less clutter than the individuals seen on TV.

An estimated 15 million people in the United States experience hoarding issues. Hoarding is a serious condition that can have devastating physical, emotional, social, financial, and legal effects on the individual and surrounding loved ones.

It’s time to bust the stigma and tell the truth. Here are seven common myths about hoarding.

1. Hoarding Is Just Another Name for OCD

Hoarding is a complex mental condition characterized by collecting too many items, an inability to let go of possessions, and trouble with organization. Until recently, hoarding was considered by mental health professionals as a form of obsessive compulsion (OCD).

While hoarding seems to be related to OCD, a vast percentage of individuals with hoarding problems do not exhibit other OCD symptoms. Even though some experts consider it a subtype of OCD, typical treatment plans have not been shown to be effective at treating the symptoms of hoarding.

2. Hoarding Is the Same Thing as Being Disorganized

While being disorganized can be a problem itself, it is not as severe as hoarding. The major difference between someone who is hoarding and someone who is messy is hoarding can make it difficult for the person to function. People may accumulate so many items they can no longer sit on the sofa or use the stove. A person who hoards is often unable to get rid of such items even when they are no longer useful or they interfere with daily living. A messy person is usually able to let things go when necessary.

Hoarding is far more serious than being disorganized. Compulsive hoarding can affect a person’s ability to maintain relationships, keep a job, and take care of personal and household needs.

3. Cleaning Will Immediately Solve the Problem

Simply attempting to clean up a cluttered space without addressing the underlying issue typically fails to solve the problem. People may spend hours of time and thousands of dollars to clean out a space only to have the person relapse and start accumulating more stuff in just a few months.

Those whose homes are cleaned out without their permission also may experience extreme distress, complicating the issue. To completely stop hoarding, a holistic treatment plan may be more effective.

4. Hoarders Are Lazy, Dirty, and Unmotivated

Stereotyping people with a hoarding condition as dirty or lazy is an unfair stigma. People who hoard may have cognitive deficits in the brain, impairing their ability to make decisions as well as to keep things organized. Studies have also shown there may be a genetic component to hoarding problems.

Rather than being stigmatized, what people with a hoarding condition really need from others is compassion, empathy, and support.Assuming a person who hoards is also dirty adds to the stigma surrounding a hoarding condition. The term hoarding most often refers to the accumulation of objects and clutter rather than dirt. It is common for a person who hoards to keep a clean house despite the clutter.

Hoarding is also common after a major loss when a person is unable to cope with grief in a healthy way. People who hoard are not lazy; they are just less capable than the average person at carrying out tasks and making decisions. Rather than being stigmatized, what people with a hoarding condition really need from others is compassion, empathy, and support.

5. Hoarders Are Collectors

Hoarding and collecting are two different things. Collectors tend to keep their items organized and proudly on display for others to see. People who hoard will rarely display their possessions, usually keeping their belongings in complete disarray. They often feel embarrassment and shame when others see their mess.

Hoarding also differs from collecting because it often prevents normal usage of the home. For example, a person’s kitchen appliances may no longer be accessible as a result of clutter.

6. Hoarders Can’t Stop Hoarding

Though it can be difficult for an affected person to stop hoarding, compulsive hoarding can be treated. Medication has not been shown to be effective against hoarding, though it may help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with it such as depression and anxiety.

Long-term therapy can effectively treat hoarding when combined with adequate education and support. Hoarding generally requires a holistic and comprehensive treatment program that addresses all aspects of a person’s life.

7. Hoarding Can Be Treated by a Single Medical Professional

Hoarding is a multi-faceted issue and typically requires a team of professionals to effectively treat the problem. Some professionals that may be involved in the treatment process include psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, professional organizers, building inspectors, and landlords, among others. These teams are often referred to as task forces, and approximately 75 cities currently have them in place to help those in the community who are struggling with hoarding.

If you or a loved one are struggling with hoarding problems, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist or other mental health professional who specializes in hoarding.

References:

  1. Baker, J., Bergren, M. G., Frost, J., Sanchez, L., Andreasen, T., & Bratiotis, C. (2014). Beyond the Sensationalism: Professional Responses to Hoarding Disorder in the Omaha Community. Retrieved from http://www.unomaha.edu/news/2014/04/hoardingwhitepaper.pdf
  2. Bratiotis, C., Otte, S., et. al. (2014) Hoarding Fact Sheet. International OCD Foundation. Retrieved from https://iocdf.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Hoarding-Fact-Sheet.pdf
  3. Dailey, S. G. (2013, February) Hoarding: A Complex Issue Needing Community Support. Age Wise: King County. Retrieved from http://www.agewisekingcounty.org/en/125/1/449/Hoarding-A-Complex-Issue-Needing-Community-Support.htm
  4. Samuels, J., Shugart, Y., et al. (2007, March). Significant linkage to compulsive hoarding on chromosome 14 in families with obsessive-compulsive disorder: results from the OCD Collaborative Genetics Study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(3): 493-9. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17329475
  5. Treneva, R. (2005, August 3). Hoarding: Myths and Misconceptions. Insight Bulletin. Retrieved from http://insightbulletin.com/hoarding-myths-and-misconceptions/
  6. Webley, K. (2010, April 26). Hoarding: How Collecting Stuff Can Destroy Your Life. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1984444,00.html

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  • Priscilla

    Priscilla

    April 14th, 2016 at 8:39 AM

    This is exactly why I have always hated those TV shows that they do showing hoarders and their homes with the people who go in an clean and seem to make things right. I would bet that if you went back to that same home even one month later most of the time we would find that the hoarding and restarted and mostly because you can clean up the house but I don’t think that for one minute they ever spent time with the families to help the person examine and try to reform those tendencies and behavior.

  • Poppie

    Poppie

    April 14th, 2016 at 1:45 PM

    This is just as serious as a problem as a problem like alcohol or drug addiction.
    I don’t know what triggers behavior like this but you have to think that it is similar to any other addiction out there.Instead though what we do is try to shame these people into cleaning, when that is really not what their issue is all about in the first place.
    How are we supposed to help them heal when we have always focused on the wrong thing?

  • Emily C.

    Emily C.

    April 15th, 2016 at 3:37 AM

    I kind of disagree!
    It is a scientifically proven fact that most creative of brains have been seen to be amidst clutter. Disorganized lifestyle, in a way, helps them focus on their work.

  • fran

    fran

    April 15th, 2016 at 7:56 AM

    What is the myth? They have a problem and they need help for it.

  • Teresa

    Teresa

    April 15th, 2016 at 1:22 PM

    Disorganized lifestyle in no way describes the way that so many people are living. This goes beyond being disorganized. I can see that we would like to think that this is all it is but believe me, these people have problems we cannot even begin to understand.

  • Leslie

    Leslie

    April 16th, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    I grew up in a home with a mother who thought that there was nothing that could ever be thrown away, you might need it again sometime in the future. That really screwed me over, I went to others houses and they were never like that but I was supposed to believe that this was normal. It never felt normal to me, but it was my mom, what could I do? Her house, her rules? I got out and never looked back. There was a sickness there, and still is I imagine that I was never going to have the ability to cope with.

  • Mitch M

    Mitch M

    April 16th, 2016 at 3:15 PM

    Yeah, a maid is generally not going to cut it for people with these tendencies. I am guessing that they would start hiding the fact that they are still hoarding and try to keep it from their family.

  • Tiffany

    Tiffany

    April 18th, 2016 at 12:11 PM

    so if they enjoy the clutter what do we do? Just let them be happy and live with it?

  • Henry

    Henry

    April 19th, 2016 at 3:33 PM

    This seems to be one of those things where it does indeed take a village to help. There has to be tons of familial support along with the help of a good professional who is trained with working with those with these types of disorders. Not only do they have to dig deep and help the person want to stop this behavior they also have to work with them on what causes them to feel the need to engage in this sort of behavior as well. And it will not be a fast and easy fix.

  • Renee Y

    Renee Y

    April 21st, 2016 at 11:50 AM

    I guess I have led a sheltered life
    I didn’t even know that this was a thing til all those shows about hoarders started coming on TV

  • shelly

    shelly

    April 22nd, 2016 at 1:02 PM

    We talk about this like it is some shameful thing, and I know that for many of us it turns our stomachs but I have to believe that most people who engage in this behavior know that it is ruining their lives and that they want to get some help but that they truly do not know where to turn for that help.
    I would imagine that it is very embarrassing for them and many of them just won’t let anyone else in to see just how terrible the situation really is. So maybe they don’t think that it is all bad but they are still smart enough to know that this is a problem.

  • Lived it

    Lived it

    December 13th, 2017 at 4:10 PM

    If you see hoarding in person you will know it is NOT the same as clutter and is not normal. It really messes up a persons life and can be dangerous too. If you have a family or friend hoarding try to get them help but remember you usually can’t force them its not your fault

  • Kristin

    Kristin

    May 5th, 2018 at 11:03 AM

    Thank you for this article. I have a client (I’m an MFT) who hoards and a neighbor who also hoards, coincidentally. I have infinite compassion for my client because I know what a difficult childhood and subsequent life he has had. His hoarding, obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior acts as a distraction from his feelings. He is acutely aware of his situation and is equally ashamed. He is funny, intelligent and creative. His illness impairs his life tremendously and he told me recently that he “just wants to be liked”. My heart goes out to anyone who struggles with this issue.

  • Lee

    Lee

    February 10th, 2019 at 10:33 AM

    I’m living this nightmare every day, my life is not worth living and I want to die, that said yesterday I found myself praying and asking God
    for the courage to end my life. I don’t fit in any life style situation, and I know that this is my only answer. The main thing that keeps me going is I believe that it’s an unforgivable sin and I wouldn’t be allowed in heaven. I don’t know how this happened to me and I’m at the end onthe road

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    February 11th, 2019 at 10:29 AM

    Thank you for sharing your comment, Lee. If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, in danger of hurting yourself or others, feeling suicidal, overwhelmed, or in crisis, it’s very important that you get immediate help! Information about what to do in a crisis is available here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

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