There’s more to helping with hoarding than rubbish removal

You’ve seen the shows, heard the stories – people who, for one reason or another, find themselves completely surrounded by possessions. Hoarding affects approximately 1.2 million people in the UK. It impacts their wellbeing and relationships, losing living space to storage, and distancing them from loved ones. But what exactly is hoarding? And why does it happen?

What is hoarding?

According to the NHS, hoarding is ‘where someone acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner, usually resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter’, with ‘little or no monetary value’ in those items. The symptoms present themselves in many ways, such as:

  • A tendency to hang on to things to reuse or fix, even if there is little worth in doing so
  • No real or consistent form of organisation for the items
  • Challenges making decisions, difficulty managing tasks and day to day routines
  • Development of strong attachments to things, reluctant to let others handle or use them, or dispose of anything
  • Difficulty managing relationships with friends and/or family

This can result in a home that is challenging to move around, isolating, and unhealthy due to lack of maintenance and cleaning. It is important to note that it can be a disorder in it’s own right if there is no other condition present to account for the behaviour.

Hoarding doesn’t just cover inanimate objects. Animals can also be hoarded, but rather than being stacked high and spilling out of cupboards, they roam and create their own contributions to the state of the property. Researchers have suggested that animal hoarding may be distinct from object hoarding due to individual self-awareness and the effect of mobile creatures in comparison to stationary piles of stuff. In these situations, the approach to treatment for the individual may be different, and there will be issues relating to animal welfare in addition to rubbish removal. However, the end result is a similar negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the individual and their animals.

Why does someone become a hoarder? What triggers it?

It is difficult to say what triggers hoarding because it varies from person to person, but the Mayo Clinic notes some risk factors:

  • Prone to indecisiveness
  • A family history of hoarding
  • Difficult life events

The UK charity Mind adds perfectionism, childhood experiences, and mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to the list of possible catalysts. Acknowledgement of the condition and beginning treatment requires the building of trust and acceptance of help, so it is important to approach the issue in a sensitive and respectful way.

How does it affect the individual and their loved ones?

For the person who is hoarding, the idea of letting something go is distressing. However, this can go on to create a cycle of distress where the individual begins to suffer in their living conditions:

  • Living space shrinks
  • Fire and trip hazards increase
  • Air quality decreases
  • Addressing the issue feels overwhelming

It becomes a case of ‘making do’ as the property deteriorates. Many people are embarrassed about their situation or struggle to clear the area for maintenance. They may prefer to let things fall into disrepair rather than let someone in to fix it. They are at increased risk of isolation, perhaps choosing not to go out, or fear judgment from visitors and don’t accept any at all. It can be a double hit of psychological and physical stress for those dealing with hoarding behaviours.

Friends and relations of those who hoard are also faced with a difficult prospect. If they are the children or partners of hoarders, the living conditions can negatively impact their physical and mental health, and relationships can suffer over issues of organisation and rubbish removal. For those not living with them, visits can become challenging as they are faced with the prospect of figuring out if or how they should help, navigating the property itself, or even attempts by the individual to keep visitors away.

Is hoarding a sign of mental illness?

It can be an aspect of mental illness – it has been noted in people dealing with depression, substance abuse, Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, and autistic conditions, among other things. How you approach hoarding depends on what it stems from, and if it is related to a mental health condition or not – this will influence the approach to treatment. In some cases it may be necessary to involve social care services; the GP will be able to advise on the correct course of action.

Can hoarding be cured?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the best place to start is a big clear out and a fresh beginning. However, think about it from the individual’s point of view: how would you feel if someone came traipsing into your home with a bunch of bin bags and insisted most of your things were rubbish? Insulted, scared and distrustful, probably. There are layers of judgment, embarrassment and fear to be dealt with, and possibly underlying mental health issues. This is why it is so important to approach the situation in an informed and sympathetic manner, and not rush straight into rubbish removal. This could actually make the issue worse in the long run and add to the person’s distress.

Common treatment methods for hoarding are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and medication. CBT is a practical approach that breaks down problems into manageable chunks, helps people learn to recognise negative patterns before they become overwhelming, and how to manage them. In this way, it can help people deal with the process of sorting and rubbish removal. Medication may also be used alongside or instead of CBT to help manage thoughts and behaviours stemming from other mental health conditions.

It is important to remember that CBT tends to address the problems of right now rather than historical experiences. It is a method to help people gain insight and cope, and may not be appropriate for everyone due to its structured nature. Also, CBT may not be suitable for those with more complex mental health needs. As always, seek the advice of a GP – they will be able to recommend a suitable approach.

What can I do about it?

If you or a loved one is dealing with hoarding, seek support or offer it. It is very important to respect the individual affected; be empathetic, do lots of research, and be prepared to take time to build trust and awareness. It isn’t always appropriate to broach the subject of rubbish removal immediately.

So, rather than ‘curing’ hoarding, individuals can learn how to manage the impulse to keep everything, realise they are able to seek help when they need it, and develop strategies to manage their home and possessions going forward. Support your loved one through their treatment plan and don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself.

Once they are in a stable mental space, then the sorting and rubbish removal can begin – get advice from one of the organisations at the end of the article about how best to approach this task.

When the time is right to organise the property…

Once the time is right, there are a few things to think about when it comes to cleaning up. Depending on how long the individual has been living in the property and hoarding, there may be whole rooms and hallways full to the brim with excess items and rubbish, not to mention the outdoor spaces. We’re not just talking unused furniture – depending on the person’s hoarding tendencies, there may be uncontained rubbish of varying types, including food, human, or chemical wastes. Rodents and bugs usually love these sorts of conditions, bringing their own bacteria. Years of dust and debris are disturbed when sorting and clearing, with the risk of carrying dangerous moulds and animal waste. All of these things are worth taking seriously, for the health of everyone involved, and will impact how you go about the organisation of the property and rubbish removal.

Some things to consider if you’re clearing a hoarder’s house:

  • How are you getting rid of it? Check out 5 ways to get rid of your rubbish and minimise your costs to get some ideas 
  • Suit up: get some personal protection equipment like disposable overalls, gloves, and respirators – make sure you have the right filters!
  • Get some air: Go outside every hour and get some fresh air for 10 minutes or so
  • Check with your local tip what they do and don’t take, and if there are considerations for disposing of certain materials (e.g., asbestos, trade waste, hazardous waste)
  • If you hire a rubbish removal company, be aware that the rate is likely to be higher due to the presence of hazards such as those mentioned above (sometimes known as a Human, Environment or Unsanitary rate) and be careful who you choose to help
  • Most rubbish removal companies don’t take hazardous waste – though there are some that specialise – so make sure to check with any service you hire as to what they will and won’t take

For further information on hoarding, check out the following links:

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Any Clearance serves Somerset with professional rubbish removal services. As well as Bristol, Bath, Taunton, Weston-super-Mare and Bridgwater, our professional staff will get the job done and deliver you peace of mind.

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