You may be familiar with the popular reality show Hoarders. It’s a gruesome, can’t look away examination of what can happen when mental illness and our consumer driven society collide. While theories on why hoarding happens can vary, there is no controversy about the results: they are tragic. Hoarders often become literal prisoners in their own homes, trapped by their mountains of possessions. Unfortunately, hoarding is not uncommon: the University of California San Diego estimates that estimated up to 1.2 million people suffer from compulsive hoarding in the USA.
Professionals believe that most hoarding is an extreme form of obsessive compulsive disorder. It is unclear at this point whether compulsive hoarding is part of OCD or whether it is a separate disorder that is common in people who have OCD. It’s also important to remember that there are degrees of hoarding and not all hoarding is compulsive. Hoarding and saving behaviors can be seen in people with various neuropsychiatric disorders, such as psychotic disorders, dementia, eating disorders, autism, and mental retardation, as well as in people with no psychiatric disorder.
While hoarding is sad in and of itself, there are also hidden costs. Hoarders often neglect basic home maintenance and their own physical health. Over the years this neglect can culminate in large medical costs and tremendous increased costs for major home repairs. Due to their lifestyle, hoarders’ homes are at a greatly increased risk for fire, collapse, flood, and infestation, and, understandably, they may have a very difficult time getting homeowners insurance. And hoarding can also cause stress, tension, and a breakdown in personal and family relationships, sometimes leading to increased isolation and depression.
What can you do if you suspect a friend, relative, acquaintance, or employee may be a hoarder? First, be kind. Remember, compulsive hoarding is not due to laziness, character weakness or simple disorganization. Rather, compulsive hoarding is the result of distinct brain abnormalities that will not improve without treatment. Encourage hoarders to seek treatment and help them receive it. Help is out there. The International OCD Foundation offers a checklist for suspected hoarders as well as a variety of helpful resources. The Massachusetts Department of Housing also has a long list of resources and information for hoarders and their loved ones. Hoarding can be treated.
Supervisors: If you suspect that hoarding could be an issue for one of your employees, remember – it’s not your role to diagnose. When a personal issue spills into the workplace and impedes performance, the appropriate response is to focus on the performance and to offer resources to the employee to get help for any personal issues that impede performance. Your EAP can help. Don’t have an EAP? Call 800-535-4841.