Hoarders: A new show

Last night, A&E aired its first episode of its series “Hoarders.” The show will air weekly on Monday nights at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 p.m. CT.

I didn’t write about it beforehand because I was nervous about how the show was going to treat the subject matter. Hoarding is a psychological disorder and compulsive hoarders should be under the treatment of a licensed medical professional, and I was afraid that the mental health issues would be pushed aside for the shock and awe of the homes.

After watching the first episode, I have to say that they did go for shock and awe — the show actually began like an episode of the fictional drama “Law and Order” and the music added during editing makes the show sound like a horror film — but, they did mention some of the underlying issues of the psychological disorder. And, in the show’s favor, they used trained professionals to help the hoarders on the show. One of the professional organizers in the first episode is NSGCD-certified Geralin Thomas, whose writing you have seen here on Unclutterer and whose work I greatly admire. So, even though you might not have seen it in the episode, I feel confident that the hoarders were treated with respect off camera and at least in Jill and Ron’s case the hoarders are receiving continuing help.

Unfortunately, I followed the Twitter streams of people responding to the show as they were watching it and was horrified by what some people were saying. Many people were judging the hoarders as being “bad” and “disgusting” instead of individuals, real people, who are suffering from a psychological disorder. I hope that in the coming episodes the show works more diligently to educate viewers about the mental health issues that hoarders experience and treat the issue with more respect (less horror film sound effects and shock-and-awe editing). I also hope that they provide more information about what happens after the initial cleanup and medical treatment that is available for hoarders. As it is now, it seemed that most viewers were just interested in looking at piles of stuff and A&E definitely catered to them.

Instead of the link at the beginning of the episode that referred hoarders to InterventionTV (I’m not kidding, they directed people to a site about how they can be on a reality television show), we at Unclutterer recommend the following resources:

Animal hoarding

It seems like every few months there is a story on the local news about a house that is completely filled with animals. The story usually goes like this: A foul odor was reported from neighbors and animal control was called in to investigate. Upon further investigation, the house was home to more than “X” number of animals.  

The cats and or dogs are then put into cages and hauled off to an animal shelter. Many of the animals are diseased, malnourished, and unfortunately euthanized. This is a peculiar form of hoarding that accounts for roughly 1,500 cases per year. 

Hoarding is a type of obsessive compulsive disorder that takes hold of people’s lives. Hoarders want to hold on to just about everything they come in contact with. Animal hoarders are usually lonely, older individuals that accumulate a large number of animals to protect them from harm. In doing so, the conditions in the home deteriorate over time. This leads to a very unhealthy environment for the animals as well as the hoarder. From AnimalHoarding.com:

Hoarders justify their behavior with the view that the animals are surrogate children and that no one else can care for them. They harbor a fear that if they seek help the animals will be euthanized.

More recently, in a publication from the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, Animal Hoarding: Structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk, Patronek and his cohorts list four key characteristics:

  • Failure to provide minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition, and veterinary care for the animals
  • Inability to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, human members of the household, and the environment
  • Obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions
  • Denial or minimization of problems and living conditions for people and animals

For more information on animal hoarding, go to AnimalHoarding.com or the Animal Hoarding News and Info blog.

For more information on hoarding in general, check out these resources:

Compulsive clutter in New York City

Hoarding is a topic that we at Unclutterer feel should be part of the uncluttering conversation. Hoarding is a serious medical condition, usually linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, which can take over someone’s life and living space.

The other day, I discovered the website Hoardhouse. It is a project being assembled by a group of journalism students at Columbia University. From the their website:

All three of the authors are very curious about the issue of hoarding and how it impacts the lives of New York City residents.

This project will explore the hoarders, psychologists, social workers, and cleanup specialists for whom hoarding is a defining phenomenon.

The final version of the site will be live by March 23, 2009.

While readers of Unclutterer may be familiar with hoarding, it is a psychological ailment that still isn’t understood by much of the general public. It is encouraging to see these journalism students working to increase public awareness about the disorder’s damaging effects.

If you or someone you know struggles with compulsive hoarding, please try and get help from the following resources:

Once again, hoarding is a disorder that should be treated by a licensed medical professional.

Learning more about compulsive hoarding

I receive a number of e-mails from readers asking for personal help or help for friends and family members who suffer from compulsive hoarding. Whenever these requests come into my inbox, I feel a sense of helplessness because all I can do is guide them to other resources. Compulsive hoarding is a psychological and medical condition, similar to obsessive compulsive disorder, and requires treatment from a licensed, medical professional.

The magazine Psychology Today approximates that 2 million U.S. residents suffer from compulsive hoarding disorder. This diagnosis is usually made based on results to one or more of the following tests: The Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS), the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS), the Hamilton Anxiety Scale (Ham-A), the Global Assessment Scale (GAS), or the Clinical Global Impression/Improvement (CGI) scale. Psychiatrists and medical doctors make the official diagnosis, but, unfortunately, too many cases go undiagnosed.

A report published in June of 2006 in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found evidence that “SRI [serotonin reuptake inhibitors] medications are effective for compulsive hoarding,” and so many compulsive hoarders are finding help for their disorder with a combination of psychotherapy and SRIs. If you know someone who is a compulsive hoarder, I strongly recommend that you encourage them to seek medical treatment so that they can find some relief from this debilitating disorder.

If you’re interested in learning more about compulsive hoarding, the TLC network has a special called, “Help! I’m a Hoarder!” that will air again on August 10, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. The show explores the symptoms and treatments of compulsive hoarding disorder. From the TLC’s website:

“More than a million Americans suffer from disposophobia – the fear of throwing anything away. Meet three individuals who face the devastating effects of compulsive hoarding. You’ll never look at your clutter in the same way again.”

This special aired last September, and my understanding is the August 10 episode is a re-broadcast of last year’s program. I can’t find documentation on TLC’s website to know for certain. So, if you missed the show last year, let me definitely recommend that you tune in this year to learn more about this paralyzing condition.

San Francisco health workers offer help to hoarders

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article highlights a program that the city of San Francisco’s Department of Aging and Adult Services and the nonprofit Mental Health Association of San Francisco have created. They have teamed up to create the Institute on Hoarding and Cluttering. The program will help local hoarders deal with all aspects of their obsessive behavior.

From the article:

Nationally, an estimated 1 million to 2 million people are compulsive hoarders. And while statistics aren’t available for just how many people in San Francisco suffer from the condition, experts say the city has become the center for study of the problem and might have more hoarders per capita than other areas.

The compact, expensive city has many SRO hotels and other small living spaces as well as an aging population that has had years to collect clutter. Dementia also can contribute to hoarding.

The nonprofit Mental Health Association of San Francisco and the city’s Department of Aging and Adult Services have teamed up to create the Institute on Hoarding and Cluttering. That group conducts training of professionals such as nurses and in-home care providers, and last summer officials launched an effort to enhance communication among city agencies that work with hoarders.

The association sees about 250 new hoarding patients a year and runs a support group for them. The Department of Public Health has two inspectors, including Oblena, who visit SRO hotels that are run by nonprofits contracted by the city to provide housing.

If you or someone you know struggles with compulsive hoarding, try and get help from the following resources:

For those of you in the San Francisco area, there will be a 16-week hoarding and cluttering treatment group that will be held starting Monday, April 28, 2008.

Possessed by possessions

PossessedWe’ve had several requests to give the documentary Possessed some notice. It is a fascinating look into four different individuals and their struggles with hoarding. If you have 20 minutes to spare, take the time to watch this short documentary. Hoarding is a terrible psychological affliction that can render someone trapped in a extremely cluttered home. Martin Hampton does a great job in documenting the extremes of these four individuals.

To see these people talking about their problem puts a personal perspective on this condition. The subjects of this documentary obviously know they have a problem, but find themselves powerless to overcome their addiction to accumulation.

For more on hoarding, here is an article that was recently featured on MSNBC.

Hoarding kindling

House FireNo, people aren’t hoarding small pieces of dry wood for starting a fire, but a person who is hoarding has definitely created a fire hazard. In this Omaha World Herald article, the dangers of hoarding and fire safety are examined. From the article:

When clutter becomes serious hoarding, though, dwellings become difficult to navigate. It raises mental health and public health issues and becomes a potential nightmare for firefighters.

“We do encounter hoarding on occasion,” Giles said, “and it may not be evident from the street,” where the fire crew assesses the location of the flames and rescue needs.

A fire blamed on faulty wiring killed three people in Fremont, Neb., last week. And clutter hampered firefighters from the moment they arrived, just minutes after receiving the alarm.

Hoarding has negative effects on a person’s emotional well-being, but it may also wind up having a very dire physical toll. Not only to the hoarder, but to firefighters trying to navigate through a maze of trash. The hoarded mess also adds fuel to the fire. Boxes stacked to the ceiling packed full of clothes aren’t exactly deterrents for a spreading inferno.

Succumbing to a fiery end in the middle of a hoarded mess of clutter, may be one of the worst ways to leave this world. If you know of anyone who has a hoarding problem, please try and get them professional psychological treatment. You may very well be saving their life.

Health effects of hoarding

According to the January 1, 2008, New York Times article “A Clutter Too Deep for Mere Bins and Shelves,” hoarding is a symptom of something much larger than just being messy and disorganized:

Excessive clutter and disorganization are often symptoms of a bigger health problem. People who have suffered an emotional trauma or a brain injury often find housecleaning an insurmountable task. Attention deficit disorder, depression, chronic pain and grief can prevent people from getting organized or lead to a buildup of clutter. At its most extreme, chronic disorganization is called hoarding, a condition many experts believe is a mental illness in its own right, although psychiatrists have yet to formally recognize it.

Adding more storage to a home will not remedy the problem. The added storage just becomes a clutter safety net, like we discussed here. More on this from the article:

…the problem with all this is that many people are going about it in the wrong way. Too often they approach clutter and disorganization as a space problem that can be solved by acquiring bins and organizers.

Measures like these “are based on the concept that this is a house problem,” said David F. Tolin, director of the anxiety disorders center at the Institute of Living in Hartford and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Yale.

“It isn’t a house problem,” he went on. “It’s a person problem. The person needs to fundamentally change their behavior.”

Oprah airs two episodes on hoarding

We’re a little late to the game on this piece of news, but thanks to a number of readers it didn’t completely slip through our fingers. If you have the chance, set your TiVos to record today’s episode of Oprah. The show is the second in a two-part series on hoarding.

Thursday’s episode, “Inside the Lives of Hoarders, Part I,” introduced viewers to Sharyn and Marvin’s 3,000 square foot home filled to capacity with clutter. In addition to Peter Walsh helping the family discover their home from under the mess, Oprah brought in Dr. David Tolin to help with the psychological issues of hoarding. Oprah’s site provides additional resources on the subject of hoarding, which can be found here.

Today’s episode follows the family as they continue to work on cleaning and repairing the home. This project, initially scheduled to be a two-week process, ended up taking eight weeks and required more than 100 people to staff its undertaking.

Check your local listings for today’s show times.

Reader Elizabeth explains the pain of growing up in a hoarding household

Reader Elizabeth sent us the following e-mail and corresponding photographs. Her message was heartbreaking and honest, and she has agreed to let us share it with you:

My parents have a compulsive hoarding problem. I don’t mean that they’re “a little disorganized” or “let the housekeeping get the best of them.” They’ve had this problem since I can remember–and it’s affected me for much the worse.

In high school, there was no free horizontal space in the house–no tables, no desks, no countertops–clear of junk. I had to do my homework on my bed or go to the library. (And, yes, I had the same problem as them, too!)

The photos [which appear below] were taken almost a year ago. In the ensuing time, the house has gotten much, much worse. This is pretty organized for them.

For those of you with children, keep in mind that you aren’t just getting rid of clutter for yourself–your organization has a direct effect on your child, whether or not they can articulate it. If you or your spouse has a problem with hoarding, take care of it sooner rather than later. My mom was the one with the clutter problem and it drove my dad crazy–but he didn’t do anything about it. If he had, even if she hadn’t liked it in the short term, we all might have had a happier life.

If you or someone you love has a problem with hoarding, please seek help. As Elizabeth has so accurately explained, hoarding affects more than just the person with the problem.

Hoarding danger in Massachusetts

A study from researchers at Boston University and Smith College asked potential subjects to pick the photo that most accurately portrays their living space:

The researchers have found that subjects are quite accurate in their self assessments and that anyone who chooses picture #4 or above may be eligible for hoarding studies and/or treatment.

Which brings me to the story of a 90 year old man who was rescued from his mountain of clutter in Norton, MA. Local residents were very aware of all the junk in his yard, but had no idea how bad it was inside the elderly man’s home.

After someone called authorities Friday concerned that Halko had not been seen for a couple of days, an ambulance responded.

It took paramedics more than 10 minutes to locate him amid the piles of furniture, boxes, magazines, appliances, and trash that he’d accumulated over several decades.

Be aware that hoarding usually takes a hold of an individual when they reach middle age and progressively gets worse. By the time a person reaches their golden years hoarding may consume their whole life and my become a danger to themselves and others. The researchers from the Boston University/Smith College study estimate that 1 to 2 percent of adults suffer from a hoarding disorder.

The Collyer brothers, a study in compulsive hoarding

Homer and Langley Collyer were brothers who lived in a Manhattan row house in Harlem in the early part of the 20th century. Their story is bizarre and illustrates the depths people will go to hold onto anything and everything.

The discovery of just how bad the Collyer brothers’ hoarding was came to light in March 1947 when an anonymous person reported there was a dead body in the Collyer residence.

The authorities did not have an easy time gaining entrance to the home. They started by trying to remove tons of garbage from the front foyer, which consisted of newspapers, phonebooks, furniture, boxes, and other miscellaneous debris. Unsuccessful in their attempts, a patrolman broke a window on the second floor in order to gain entry. After climbing through junk for two hours, he found the body of the elder brother Homer among the boxes and trash. Missing from the home, however, was Langley, the younger of the two recluses.

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