Hoarding disorder is one of the most destructive mental health issues as it can have such a big impact on all areas of a person's life. It is also very difficult to treat hoarding disorder, requiring very careful and specialist care. If you or a family member are dealing with hoarding, there is help available and there is someone on the other end of the phone who understands the condition perfectly. It truly isn't something that needs to be kept behind closed doors.
Here we are going to take a look at what hoarding disorder is, how it is treated, and how best to clean up a hoarding situation.
Hoarding disorder isn't just someone being very messy. We are all free to be as messy as we like and that doesn't mean that we have mental health problems. For someone who hoards, however, the condition goes much, much deeper than that and it can cause serious mental and physical damage.
Hoarding disorder is a mental health problem that is characterised by acquiring a large number of items that are stored chaotically. These items are often not valuable and can even be rubbish.
Hoarding behaviour severely interferes with the person's ability to live a normal life and is often a serious health risk due to the cluttered environment. The living space is often unusable in any meaningful way. For example, the person hoarding may be unable to cook in their kitchen or use their bathroom.
The clutter and hoarding will cause symptoms of distress in the individual, as will trying to remove the hoarded items. Many people who hoard feel ashamed of their condition and can end up isolated and lonely. This can aggravate their emotional distress and mental health problems.
The most obvious symptom of hoarding disorder is the large piles of items collected and the chaotic manner in which they are stored but the disorder goes deeper than that. Someone with a hoarding disorder will often have little insight into their own behaviour and may not accept that there is a problem.
To someone on the outside looking in, the objects that the person has hoarded appear to be worthless. Commonly hoarded items include:
But the person with hoarding disorder will often have a strong emotional attachment to these items. They may believe that the items are valuable or unique in some way. They may also believe that the items hold sentimental value and they may remind them of a particular person or moment in their life. They often believe that the items will be too useful in the future for them to consider throwing them away.
To many people, throwing things away and having a clearout can be a cleansing act that makes them feel empowered. But for someone with a hoarding problem, this isn't the case. Because of their strong beliefs and emotional attachment to the items they have hoarded, they will experience severe distress when the items are removed.
Many people who are concerned about a loved one's hoarding think that a forced clearout is the answer, but this can be too distressing for the person with hoarding behaviour and can make the situation worse.
The person with the hoarding problem may also experience anxiety about needing the items they have hoarded in the future. They may be intensely distrustful of people being near their hoarded items in case they go missing and this can cause them to further isolate themselves.
Hoarding disorder is a mental health problem that has no single cause. There are lots of factors that can make the development of hoarding disorder more likely, however.
Hoarding disorder usually starts quite early, when someone is in their teens, but it generally isn't until middle age (once they have spent decades accumulating things) that the problem comes to a head.
Hoarding disorder is a type of anxiety disorder and is highly related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), although it has recently been recognised as a separate disorder rather than a subtype of OCD. This can be quite surprising because one of the stereotypes of OCD is that the person will be obsessed with cleaning but the disorder is a very broad spectrum and hygiene OCD is only one of many forms.
Someone with hoarding disorder is also more likely to have other mental health issues such as ADHD, depression, or a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia. It is also associated with Prader-Willis Syndrome as well as both substance abuse and alcohol abuse disorder.
You are more likely to develop hoarding disorder if you have family members with the same condition. This suggests there may be a genetic component to the condition and/or that growing up in a hoarding environment may make it more likely for someone to display hoarding behaviour themselves.
Equally, hoarding disorder can appear out of the blue when someone experiences a very stressful life event such as a bereavement.
Hoarding disorder is also linked to several deficits in mental processing. These include:
It is also associated with cognitive functioning traits such as:
Conditions that affect these types of cognitive functioning abilities, such as learning disabilities and dementia, can also make developing hoarding disorder more likely.
Since many hoarders find it difficult to accept that their hoarding situation is a problem, it may be tempting to leave them to live the way that they want to. But hoarding disorder can be both physically and mentally dangerous, so encouraging the hoarding individual to seek treatment is important.
Hoarding behaviours can make any underlying condition or mental illness that the person has worse because the person is likely to withdraw from those closest to them and because their living space is such that they are unable to properly care for themselves.
They may also delay seeking help from a mental health professional for any other mental health conditions because they wish to avoid their hoarding disorder being addressed. This can lead to a snowballing effect where their mental health declines dramatically.
While hoarding disorder is a mental health issue, its physical manifestation of too much stuff can lead to physical health problems as a result of the unsafe living environment.
All the clutter piled up throughout the entire house is a serious fire hazard. Not only is it more likely to catch fire in the first place, but it can also make it much more difficult for either the person to escape or for the fire brigade to reach them.
As well as fire hazards, these piles of clutter can also be the perfect environment for pests to live in. This can include mice, rats, and a variety of insects. These pests can carry serious diseases which can be harmful to the hoarder.
The piles themselves can directly harm the hoarder. They can make moving around the living environment more difficult, leading to an increased chance of falls. The piles can also collapse on top of the person, injuring or trapping them.
Hazardous waste can be a common issue for people with hoarding disorder. The inability to properly clean food preparation areas, along with the likelihood of the presence of rotting food, animal droppings, etc means that the person may regularly come into contact with bacteria and other pathogens that could make them seriously ill.
Animal hoarding can bring its own specific issues. Often, animals will crawl into a space in the clutter to die or may get crushed by a smelling pile. Their corpse can then make the living environment very harmful to the hoarder's health as it decomposes. It can release hazardous fluids and bloodborne pathogens and it will also attract pests that can carry diseases.
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The physical dangers that are present for someone with hoarding disorder, especially as the condition develops over time, mean that it is important for them to get professional medical advice as soon as possible.
Is hoarding the same as collecting?
You may know someone with an extensive collection of objects that they are very passionate about. This could be anything from film memorabilia to china dolls. But is this the same as having hoarding disorder?
The answer is no. Collecting objects is not the same as hoarding. Let's look at the key differences.
Someone who collects will likely have a dedicated area in their house for their collection with the objects beautifully displayed. This can be contrasted with someone who hoards where the objects are chaotically arranged and often can't even be found.
A collection will often be valuable items all of a similar type, whereas hoarding can involve items that are objectively rubbish.
Collecting does not have a negative impact on the collector's life. They may be passionate about finding their favourite items but they are still able to live comfortably in their home without their collection impeding them. They will be able to work, have visitors, and complete their personal hygiene tasks and self-care. Someone with hoarding disorder will likely get to a point where they are unable to do many of these things.
Oftentimes, getting the person with hoarding disorder to access treatment can be the most difficult step. If you are worried about a family member with a suspected hoarding disorder, you may feel that it is almost impossible to persuade them to get professional help. Often, the person may not see that they have a problem and they also may be very anxious that accessing treatment programs will result in their possessions being thrown away.
This is why it is important to take a gentle approach, regardless of how frustrating it may be to watch a loved one's hoarding get worse and worse. You should never threaten to storm into their house with plastic bags and throw all of their things away. Equally, however, it is important to be persistent because of safety reasons and for their quality of life.
Once the person agrees to seek professional help, there will be concrete steps that can be taken to improve their quality of life.
It is not a good idea to arrange extra storage space like a storage unit for them or to bring in help from local resources such as the Environmental Health Agency (unless there are serious health code violations) to clear out the clutter. These types of approaches will not treat the underlying issues that are fuelling the hoarding behaviour and it will reoccur.
Instead, encouraging them to seek professional health so that they can find the right support is one of the most helpful things that you can do.
As frustrating as it can be to deal with a family member with hoarding disorder, it is important to take the right approach if you want to make sure that they get the help that they need.
CBT is the main treatment method for hoarding disorder and it is the treatment method with the highest likelihood of success. It definitely isn't a quick fix but its strength is that it works to provide people who hoard with the tools they can use to manage their condition in the long term.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for a variety of different mental health issues. It works on the principle that our thoughts influence our feelings which influence our behaviour. And, in turn, our behaviour influences our thoughts and our feelings. Changing our thoughts can change our behaviour and changing our behaviour can change our thoughts.
Using CBT to treat hoarding disorder can take a long time but with perseverance, it can help the hoarder to change their life. It can be difficult to find therapists who specialise in hoarding disorder, but your GP and local mental health services will be able to find the right support.
Some therapy sessions will involve talking through some of the issues that lead to the hoarding behaviour, which can include the types of beliefs that the person attaches to the items that they are collecting. It will also help them to improve their skills related to decision-making and planning.
There will also be practical homework that the person will need to complete and some sessions will take place at home physically dealing with the objects. Specifically, this will often involve challenging the person's beliefs about their objects.
It is important to remember that the therapist will never throw things away. Their job is to guide and encourage the person to make their own decision to remove an item.
Once the person has thrown something away, they will see that nothing bad has happened and this helps to further challenge the beliefs that they had about the object. Over time, those beliefs should get weaker and weaker and the strong emotions that appear when removing an object should also lessen.
At this point, the person's living conditions should begin to improve and they can start to think about getting properly organised. Some people bring in a professional organiser at this stage to further support the progress being made.
Remembering to celebrate small victories is important. It might seem to an outsider that no progress has been made because the living space is still cluttered but if they have chosen to remove even some items this is a huge deal.
Attending a support group, family therapy, or group therapy can also be a helpful tool for the person who hoards. In particular, mending bonds with a family member through therapy can help the person to be less isolated which will support them in their recovery. It is also helpful if there is a family history of hoarding as this can help to address these issues at a family level so that they don't get reinforced outside of the therapy sessions.
While CBT is the only approved treatment that directly addresses hoarding disorder, some medications can help people with hoarding disorder to recover. In particular, antidepressants such as SSRIs can address some of the underlying issues related to the disorder. This can make it easier for the person to engage with their CBT therapy, support group, or family therapy.
Support groups can be a lifeline for people with hoarding disorder. One of the major impacts on the person's mental health is social withdrawal due to shame or guilt. Spending time with other people who hoard with professional help on hand can reduce the stigma associated with hoarding and give the person a social lifeline.
Treatment programs for hoarding are long-term, and hoarding disorder is generally something that the person will have to battle their whole life. Learning to stay organised, set limits with the objects in the house, and continue challenging beliefs is important to stay on top of hoarding behaviour.
Even once people with hoarding disorder have started to engage with treatment, there is still a mountain to climb. And the biggest is tackling the living conditions to make them usable again. For some people, the aim will only be for the area to be safe and to be able to access rooms again. For others, the goal could be much higher and for the home to be pristine.
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If the person who hoards is still living in the home you must have their clear consent for cleaning at every stage. You can find support from their mental health team to ensure that cleaning isn't going to hamper their progress.
If you are living in a shared space it can be difficult to balance wanting to help the hoarder with wanting to ensure that you have a liveable home. Family therapy and discussing the correct approach with the mental health team can help you to get on the same page and make the progress that everyone needs.
Cleaning up after hoarding is a big task. It is a completely different situation to tidying up a normal house and there are serious considerations that need to be made before committing to cleaning a hoarding home.
There is a good chance that there will be hazardous waste in and amongst the clutter. This could be due to rotting food, human waste, animal and pet waste, or even animal carcases. This waste can carry bacteria and other dangerous pathogens that could cause you serious harm.
When cleaning in this type of situation it is important to wear the correct personal protective equipment to protect yourself as much as possible.
The nooks and crannies of piles of clutter are the perfect breeding ground for mould. Mould in large quantities isn't just difficult to clean but can also be dangerous for your health. When you move clutter to clean around it, the mould spores will be released into the air where they can be breathed in.
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In the same way as with hazardous waste, it is important to wear the correct safety gear and ask so that you aren't harmed by the mould.
Just as the nooks and crannies are perfect breeding grounds for mould, they are also the ideal environment for pests to thrive. And, again, as soon as the pile of clutter starts getting moved those bests will come running out. This can be an overwhelming situation for anyone.
The approach you should take will depend on the type of pest and you do need to make sure that you are using the right pest control method as well as using the correct equipment to protect yourself.
Stacks of clutter are often piled haphazardly around in a hoarding situation and you need to be very careful that the pile doesn't collapse when you are attempting to move it. You could get crushed or injured.
Walking around carefully is also important as there will be trip hazards. Wearing protective equipment such as steel toe-capped boots and a hard hat can help to protect you from injuries.
If the person has been hoarding animals, the situation can become much more difficult to deal with. The first job is to ensure that any animals in the property receive appropriate veterinary care, including neutering.
If there are, unfortunately, animals who have died amongst the clutter then you will need to be very careful with removing them and ensuring that the area is clean. Dead animals, through the decomposition process, can release fluids that can carry dangerous bloodborne pathogens and bacteria.
This isn't a case of doing a bit of dusting and running the hoover around. Cleaning up after hoarding needs to be focused on making the area safe and removing any harmful bacteria and other pathogens.
Using the correct equipment and disinfectant products is vital for the space to become livable again.
A professional cleaning company is often the best choice for cleaning a house that has had a hoarding problem in it. Hoarding disorder is a complex situation so bringing in as many experts as possible to help will support the hoarder as they make progress in tackling their condition.
A hoarding house can feel overwhelming while it is still cluttered and dirty and this can trigger anxiety which can exacerbate the issue. If the person who hoards is also dealing with decision-making, planning, and procrastination issues, starting the task of tackling the hoard can be impossible.
With the help of a professional cleaning company, however, you can make the situation more manageable by creating a clean slate. This will help the hoarder in their progress with staying organised and learning to reduce clutter.
We have covered some of the pitfalls you may encounter when attempting to clean a hoarding house on your own. Bringing in a professional will mean that you won't endanger your physical health.
The cleaning technicians will be fully trained in how to handle more extreme cleaning than the average person. They will have the essential personal protective equipment necessary to protect them from mould, pests, and hazardous waste.
Perhaps more importantly, however, their training and experience will allow the to recognise where dangers are likely to be present so that they can be mitigated. For example, they could spot the telltale signs of a pest infestation and be ready with the appropriate pest control methods before it gets out of hand.
Professional cleaners will be able to remove even hazardous waste appropriately to ensure that it doesn't pose a danger to anyone who comes into contact with it.
Moving large amounts of clutter can pose dangers due to the risk of falls and the piles collapsing. Professional cleaners will take appropriate steps to ensure that their technicians are safe while the clutter is dismantled.
Just because an area looks clean to the naked eye, that doesn't necessarily mean that it has been made safe. And this is especially true in houses where there has been a large hoard for a long time.
Professional cleaners will ensure that the property is fully disinfected and no longer poses a risk to anyone's health.
You don't need to worry. We aren't going to come in and forcibly remove anything. Professional cleaners with experience in helping people with hoarding disorders understand how complex the situation is.
Cleaning a hoarding house is a team effort. The person who hoards is fully in control of the situation, with the help and support of their mental health team and the team of cleaning technicians. Approaching the task in this way ensures that the hoarder makes all of the decisions that are important to them while being guided and encouraged to make positive changes to their life.
If you or someone you love is dealing with hoarding disorder and needs support with bringing their home back into a liveable and comfortable position, we can help. We fully understand that the situation can be emotionally distressing so our team is fully trained in how to approach the cleanup in a sensitive, caring, and compassionate way.
Our cleaning technicians are also fully equipped with the latest cleaning technology and the highest quality cleaning products to ensure that the home is safe once again. They understand the complexities of cleaning a hoarding house and can tackle the situation no matter what arises.
We are completely non-judgemental. As professional cleaners, we really have seen it all before, and then some! So don't be afraid to get in touch. We are ready to help make the property livable again, every step of the way.
If you have a family member or loved one with hoarding disorder who has unfortunately died and you are in charge of organising their property, it can feel like an impossible task. But we can help. We have completed the process of bringing a hoarding home back into a liveable condition countless times and we will be able to approach it efficiently and thoroughly.
It is unfortunately sadly common that a person with hoarding disorder may die at home. If their death was unattended for some time, this may be an extremely traumatic situation for all involved.
Cleaning after an unattended death is never something that you should try to tackle yourself and when it is part of an already hazardous hoarding situation, it is always best to bring in professionals like Cleanup Team who can safely remove hazardous waste, clean, and disinfect the property.
Our cleaning technicians are fully trained in how to handle after-death cleanup and will ensure that the home is safe to live in or to sell on.