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Is hoarding a mental health issue?

April 22, 2024
Lorna Reid

Most of us will have heard of hoarding, but we might notunderstand what it is. Often, hoarding can be confused with collecting, havingmore clutter than usual or just being messy. However, hoarding is adebilitating issue. People can struggle with a hoarding disorder, or hoardingcan be part of a physical or mental health problem.


Hoarding is where someone has an excessive number of thingsbut they find it extremely difficult to throw or give anything away. This canresult in them living in an unmanageable amount of clutter, which can have anegative impact on their day-to-day life. For instance, they may not be able touse certain rooms in their house due to a lack of space, or they may feel tooembarrassed to invite people over.


Where hoarding is extreme, it can also be dangerous; theamount of clutter may mean that the person isn’t able to leave a space quicklyand safely in an emergency, or something could fall from a pile and injuresomeone. There’s also a risk of poor hygiene and cleanliness; they may not beable to clean their house properly which could lead to a pest infestation.


It’s not uncommon for hoarding to place a strain onrelationships. Someone with a hoarding issue may distance themselves fromothers because they don’t want anyone to find out about their situation. Theymay also clash with family members or the people they live with if someonetries to tidy up or throw things out.


Despite the problems it can cause, people who struggle withhoarding feel a strong need to keep things and can get very upset when theiritems are disposed of. The things they store can be varied - it could beobjects that they deem sentimental, clothes, books, containers or things thatmost people would consider rubbish, like receipts and old newspapers.


Some people hoard animals in the belief that they arerescuing them, but the more animals that they take in, the less able they areto care for all of them. More recently, data hoarding has also become aproblem, where people feel unable to delete photos, emails or messages fromtheir devices and they keep building up.


The reason for hoarding varies from person to person. Itcould be simple, like they don’t have enough storage space or time to organiseand tidy their things, or perhaps they struggle with perfectionism, where they worry about throwing away the wrong thing. They may alsohold one or more of these beliefs:


·       If things are thrown away, they will feeldistressed and unable to cope

·       The items may come in handy one day

·       If they buy certain items, this will make themhappy

·       Throwing things away risks losing a memory

·       Things should be disposed of perfectly or not atall

·       Throwing things away is wasteful or harmful tothe environment

·       All of their items are unique and irreplaceable


What is hoarding asymptom of?


While hoarding can be a condition in itself, it can also bea symptom of a physical or mental illness. Sometimes, hoarding can come onfollowing a traumatic experience or a stressful major life event, such as the deathof a loved one. People may experience hoarding with one of these healthproblems:


·       Dementia

·       Severe depression

·       Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

·       Psychotic disorders, like schizophrenia

·       Alcohol or drug addiction

Supporting someonewho is hoarding


Someone with a hoarding issue may feel too embarrassed toopen up about what they’re going through, which means that they’re less likelyto seek help. This can cause low self-esteem and lead to them isolatingthemselves. On the other hand, not everyone who hoards items thinks that theyhave a problem.


Whatever the case is, if you notice that someone is hoardingand you want to help them, it’s important that you bring up the subjectsensitively and take a compassionate approach. Reassure them that there’snothing to be ashamed of; you’re not there to judge them and you’re onlythinking of their health and wellbeing.


Generally, decluttering and cleaning the person’s housewithout their permission isn’t the best idea, as they may find this veryupsetting. It also won’t get to the root of the problem and they’re likely tojust replace what’s been disposed of with more things over time.


As a first port of call, try to encourage them to go to theGP and seek help - you could even offer to take them, or to go with them. Letthem know that this isn’t a trick and that no one will come and take theirthings away while they’re out. The conversation with the doctor is just to seewhat support is available to them.


The GP may suggest medication or talking therapy, such ascognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT works to help you manage differentsituations or problems by changing the way you think and behave.


At ieso, we cannot treat hoarding as a standalonecondition, however we can treat depression or OCD where hoarding is a symptom.Our therapy service offers typed CBT, which is an online text-based service,where the patient ‘speaks’ to a therapist by typing back and forth. Our serviceis flexible, confidential and non-judgemental. Findout more.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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