Hoarding: Why forced cleanouts are unsuccessful

The A&E channel ran a Memorial Day marathon of the first season of its television show Hoarders. After showing all of the original broadcasts, A&E aired a new episode that showed the progress — or, rather lack of progress — of a handful of the show’s participants. Four of the five of the people featured in the new “Where are they one year later?” episode had fully returned to their hoarding ways.

I didn’t watch the new episode and actually heard about it through a blog post on Entertainment Weekly’s website. Learning about it this way was a solid reminder that the show is created for entertainment, and not necessarily to help the participants on the show or teach the audience about the mental disorder. I know from people who have worked with the show that behind the scenes they do try to help the participants, but so much of that isn’t transmitted to the audience. The scary music and the shock and awe storytelling dehumanize the participants, in my opinion.

In the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by hoarding specialists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, the authors say that this recidivist behavior is the norm and should have been expected by the Hoarders production staff. From pages 96 and 97 of the book:

One of the worst experiences for someone with a hoarding problem occurs when another person or crew arrives to clear out the home, usually at the order of the public health department or a frustrated family member … These scenarios almost always leave the hoarder feeling as if his or her most valued possessions have been taken away, which in fact may be the case. Beyond this, most hoarders have a sense of where things are amid the clutter. When someone else moves or discards even a portion of it, this sense of “order” is destroyed. We know of several cases in which hoarders have committed suicide following a forced cleanout.

The time, expense, and trauma of a forced cleanout are not worth the effort if any other alternatives are possible. Although conditions in the home may improve temporarily, the behavior leading to those conditions will not have changed. Moreover, the likelihood of obtaining any future cooperation after such trauma is slim. One Massachusetts town in our survey of health departments conducted a forced cleanout costing $16,000 (most of the town’s health department budget). Just over a year later, the cluttered home was worse than ever.

I continue to have very mixed emotions about the television show Hoarders. I like that the show raises awareness about hoarding, but I don’t feel that it’s necessarily helpful and compassionate information that is being distributed. Did any of you catch the marathon and the “Where are they one year later?” episode? I’m interested in reading your thoughts in the comments.

Again, if you or someone you know is a hoarder, please seek treatment from a licensed medical practitioner. The disorder can be dangerous and treatment has been shown successful for those seeking help.

The following organizations have “find a therapist” functions on their websites that list therapists specifically trained to treat hoarding:

56 Comments for “Hoarding: Why forced cleanouts are unsuccessful”

  1. posted by Jess@minimalistmum on

    The issue of decision making and the stress it causes in a complex life is regularly addressed.

    If a hoarder is incapable of making those decisions one by one, then they’re going to be totally overwhelmed by the houseful they have collected.

    Clearly, therapy and practical help is needed! But I can sympathise with the feeling of “surely this must be good for something better than the bin?!?” I just threw out a bunch of worn socks (that I’d been thinking we could make sock puppets from, but, get real) and some shoes that had one from each pair unwearable (but why doesn’t anybody recycle shoes in this town?)

  2. posted by LindaM on

    My older sister is a compulsive hoarder. She lived with me for two years and when she moved in, she filled my basement with her ‘collection’ – moved in a full-sized moving van, two 14-ft U-hauls and 5 mini-vans full. Two years after she moved in, I moved her into her own apartment because we just couldn’t live together, but I told her she could keep her ‘studio’ in my basement if she cleaned it up. For the next 8 years my daugher and I literally lived over a fire-trap and I was uncomfortable in my own home. I tried ‘helping’ her go through her stuff but she was unwilling / unable to part with anything. Finally, her psychiatrist suggested a contract – between me, my sister and our mother, giving my sister 13 months to get my basement organized and cleared out. Once the dead-line arrived, I would have ‘authorization’ to go down and clear out the space myself. What my sister did was desperately try to pack up the stuff and move it to her own, already packed apartment. The deadline arrived and I spent 3 days with a helpful friend, going through and getting rid of the stuff. My sister survived, although she occasionally remembers something that she was unable to save and shows her resentment towards me since I threw / gave away something valuable of hers.

    What these shows do not address is when the hoarder fills up someone ELSE’s space. I was living in unsafe conditions and exposing my daughter to the same conditions. I was uncomfortable in my own home, even though I was not actually living in the clutter. My mother and I have tried to help my sister, but Jenipurr hit the nail on the head – if the hoarder does not want to change, nothing will convince them to do so. I have accepted that she will not change, and I’m trying to convince my mother to do the same. She lives in filthy, unhealthy conditions that negatively affect her life, but she hasn’t found a therapist who is able to help.

  3. posted by Carm on

    I agree that forced and rushed cleanouts are not the solution for hoarders. This show reminds me of all I dislike about Biggest Loser. Sure, it makes for popular entertainment, but as for helping someone make a lasting change in their lives it falls way short.

  4. posted by KateJones on

    I think you’re also slightly missing a point here – these people are hoarding to the point of serious safety and health hazards.

    Just like you would ‘force’ treatment on someone with anorexia, and just like you would NOT be OK with an anorexic person not eating – you will force treatment on a hoarder, and will not be OK with them dragging more stuff in without parting with some.

    Clean up, deal with the underlying issues, and after that go by a strict 1-in-1-out!

  5. posted by Amber on

    I know I’m behind on this, but I wanted to comment. I wrote a paper for a sociology of the family course on an episode of Hoarders. I had watched the show before, yet I hadn’t truly analyzed it until I wrote my paper.

    As other people have mentioned, the abhorrent treatment and exploitation of the hoarders was disturbing. The psychologists spoke to the hoarders as though they were children, over-enunciating words and speaking slowly. If I had been in that position, I would have thrown a fit, too. If you take power away from someone, they will act powerless (like a child).

    The dynamic of the families is what really got to me. They made the hoarders look like the “bad guys” and treated the family members like saints for “helping” them. Sons, daughters, husbands, and wives would exclaim with exasperation how they had tried to help but that it just became cluttered again, but almost none of them attributed the “clutter” to a mental illness or considered that the hoarding was likely the symptom of a bigger issue. They made it sound like the hoarders made a choice to collect everything, but I don’t know many people who would purposefully live in squalor.

  6. posted by Coyote Hunter on

    As a former television news journalist-back when they did real news-I can only tell you the two shows are the rough equivalent of a newsroom axiom. “If it bleeds it leads.” Or how about “if you have barn burner it will lead the late news.”

    We like watching disasters. Car wrecks, plane crashes, and so on. After all, the first newspaper was born in London a few centuries back and all it reported was obituaries. The formula lives on.

    These shows reinforce the sense we are mere mortals. Flawed. Weak. Sometimes hopeless. Shrinks might help. They do with alcoholics. Rarely. And AA only has a success rate in the low digits. I can tell easily these people have problems every bit as serious as alcohol abuse. Watching your boob tube and expecting some show producer to provide help is foolish. They just want the train wreck to look worse.

    These shows are nothing new. Slow motion accidents, perhaps. All the show producers do is walk up and ask the standard TV question, “how do you feel?” Tears ensue. TV love tears. As you watch the show, watch for questions and situations set up to encourage tears. Those of the participants and yours too.

    Other than that, flip it over to the ballgame. Have some fun.

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