Is Hoarding A Mental Illness & When Should You Seek Help?

Reviewed by Heather Cashell, LCSW

Published 12/28/2020

Ever since the reality television show Hoarders was released in 2009, awareness is at an all-time high regarding the hoarding disorder and what it’s like living with a hoarder. It helps others see life through a hoarder’s eyes and gives a close-up look of the consequences.

Despite the increase in exposure and awareness regarding the disorder, many people assume it’s something the hoarder has control over, making it a choice. Some people don’t understand what causes hoarding, why people hoard, and whether or not it’s considered a mental illness.

Don’t worry, we’re here to set the record straight.

So, is hoarding a mental illness?

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The truth is, yes, hoarding is considered a mental illness -- much like depression, OCD, ADHD, schizophrenia, and anxiety. In fact, many people suffering from a hoarding disorder also suffer from one (or multiple) other mental illnesses.

It wasn’t always this way. When the American Psychiatric Association released DSM-IV in 1994 and DSM-IV-TR in 2000, hoarding was considered a ‘symptom’ of obsessive-compulsive disorders. It wasn’t until 2013 when the APA released DSM-V that they listed it as its disorder.

Today, hoarding disorders are dealt with carefully because we now understand the extremity of the situation. We also understand the overwhelming effect it has on an individual’s quality of life, as well as their loved one’s lives.

That’s why it’s important now more than ever to seek help immediately following detection, to ensure it doesn’t get any worse than it already has.

Whats the Criteria for a Hoarding Disorder?

When diagnosing a hoarding disorder, mental health professionals must follow certain guidelines and symptom definitions. They’re listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th Edition (DSM-5) released by the APA, which we discussed above.

Let’s take a quick look at the different symptoms, definitions, and requirements that help diagnose hoarding disorders:

  • The person could have an extreme amount of difficulty letting go of items or belongings, despite the items' value in question.
  • The person experiences an intense need to save items met with stress when they aren’t given the chance.
  • The person has a hard time keeping their home clean and eventually leads to clutter around the home. Gradually, the home becomes unlivable.
  • The person is experiencing social, occupational, or hygienic impairment as a result of the hoarding.

In addition to those four symptoms, the DSM-V also states two cases where another medical condition might define hoarding. For example, brain injuries, cerebrovascular disease, and Prader-Willi syndrome have all been linked to a hoarding disorder.

Not only that, but other mental disorders (depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia) could lead to a hoarding disorder in some individuals. While these disorders aren’t synonymous with one another, they are often treated in the same people.

That’s why the mental health professional needs to detect the hoarding disorder and detect what’s causing it. It’s the biggest step you can take towards finding the right treatment, especially if a different condition is triggering the hoarding disorder.

Why Do People Hoard?

While mental health professionals have a pretty firm grasp of compulsive hoarding symptoms, there’s still a growing amount of uncertainty behind why people hoard. Researchers continue to study to this day and is one of the major reasons there’s no cure for it -- yet.

With that being said, researchers have discovered several risk factors that seem to play a major role in the onset of hoarding -- whether or not another mental disorder is present. Let’s take a look at what they’ve learned up to this point:

  • Family Influence - most people who develop a hoarding disorder have a family member who also suffers. Believe it or not, a close friend can also influence someone to hoard.
  • Personality - most people with hoarding disorders have certain personality traits that lead to hoarding, such as indecisiveness, the urge to save, and the fear of throwing away.
  • Life Events - stressful events encountered throughout someone’s life could also be the reason they hoard. Divorces, loss of a loved one, a house fire, and even eviction could all lead to a hoarding disorder if not dealt with properly.

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Getting to the bottom of the disorder is essential if the individual wants to eventually overcome it. Of course, this is no easy task and often requires a large amount of effort from both the individual and their support group.

If you’re suffering from a hoarding disorder, never take your support group for granted. Keep in mind, they only want what’s best for you, and they want to see you lead a better life.

Of course, that also means you should never give up on someone you love -- especially if they’re diagnosed with a hoarding disorder. If you’re a part of their support group, take that as a compliment and do something positive with it!

Is Hoarding Dangerous?

Earlier in this article, we discussed the common link between a hoarding disorder and other mental disorders. While it’s often true that people suffer from multiple disorders at once, it’s not the only danger they’re faced with.

In fact, hoarding disorders lead to a wide range of physical, emotional, mental, and social complications -- especially if not treated properly. The longer a hoarding disorder goes undetected, the more damage it does.

Here are just some of the life complications that can occur as a result of hoarding:

  • A loss of interest in social interactions, especially people being invited over to the individual’s home.
  • Due to the massive amounts of clutter, a higher risk of falling or injuring yourself while walking through the home.
  • A higher risk of fire damage and animal/insect infestations lead to high levels of waste inside the home.
  • Unsanitary conditions that eventually lead to other health concerns that only worsen over time.
  • Difficulty focusing, especially at work, leads to a decrease in work performance and a higher chance of being punished or fired.
  • Many legal issues can occur, such as facing eviction, divorce, loss of child custody, and much more.

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An important thing to note with a hoarding disorder is most people won’t seek help themselves. Normally, the individual’s support group initiates the call for help, despite the individual often being reluctant to receive it.

The individual’s doctor could also be the one to observe the warning signs, especially if they’re already being diagnosed or treated for another mental illness.

Either way, we all must understand the many complications and difficulties hoarders experience daily in their lives. The sooner we help them receive the help they need, the sooner they start leading a healthier and happier life.

Are There Stages To Hoarding?

Hoarding disorders present themselves in various ways, which is why researchers started to break the mental illness down into different stages. Each stage represents a new severity of the disorder that must be dealt with differently.

There are five stages in total and it’s important to understand them all because you never know when one of your friends or family members is stuck in one -- especially since most people hide their symptoms as much as possible.

The first stage in hoarding is difficult to identify, largely because there are no physical symptoms to the person or home. Instead the first stage is defined through behavior and generally focuses on saving or excessive urges to shop.

During the second stage, clutter inside the home is still low, but the home starts to show signs of a mess. Sinks fill up with dishes, bathrooms and kitchens aren’t cleaned, food expires, and pests start making their way in.

The third stage is similar to the second stage, with the main difference being the odors throughout the home. Since clutter is starting to restrict certain areas of the home, you’ll start noticing some of the clutter find its way outside. This is where a majority of the health risks start taking effect.

By the fourth stage of hoarding, odors and clutter have taken over the home. It’s hard to live inside the home, there aren’t any reliable exits, and bugs/rodents are more like roommates. At this point, there are also limited utilities and appliances, if any.

The fifth stage is when hoarding is at its absolute worst. Structural damage is evident, living conditions are hazardous to say the least, and the individual is likely facing legal issues resulting in a possible eviction. If a mental health professional hasn’t been involved up to this point, now’s the time to make that call.

Are You Ready For Help?

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It doesn’t matter what stage of hoarding you fall under, what’s causing the hoarding disorder, or why you feel the urge to hoard. Everyone suffering from this mental illness needs professional help immediately. The longer you wait, the worse the hoarding gets.

If you or a loved one needs help, it’s important to understand that there is help out there -- you just need to take that first step towards wanting that help. It’s a big step to take in your life, but it’s one that needs to be made when searching for a healthier and happier life.

Since we’re dedicated to helping others find the help they need, we’ve created an online test to help you determine your risk level when it comes to hoarding. The online hoarding disorder test only takes a couple minutes to complete and could be the reason you start seeking help today.

To learn more about our mission at Mind Diagnostics, contact us today. Otherwise, browse through our variety of mental health tests to see if you need professional help. Don’t worry, we’ll also match you with the right therapist in your area to ensure you’re in the right hands and receive the right hoarding help designed for you.