Hoarding Reality Shows Might Do More Harm Than Good

06/17/2015 06:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

A recent episode of “Hoarders: Family Secrets” opens on an Ohio couple named Joyce and Wallace, who have been married for 31 years. They live in a mid-sized home that could probably be described as too roomy for just the two of them, were it not for the piles of junk that take up every surface in every room in the house.

Wallace is at the end of his rope. Living with Joyce, who suffers from compulsive hoarding, has filled him with despair. Joyce admits she has a problem, but maintains that while she does have the power to get rid of the junk, she “just doesn’t feel like it."

Such reality TV shows that feature hoarding disorders have became irresistible fodder for a viewing audience that loves a good makeover, and most claimed to be doing important work to raise awareness for the disorder and improve the lives of the people featured.

But a recent report from the British Psychological Society concluded that the media should “desist from using mental health problems to entertain and shock the public."

One of the first researchers to study hoarding as a phenomenon agrees: "The shows promote the idea that arriving at a house with a cleaning crew and pressuring people to discard possessions is the way to solve the problem," said Randy Frost, author of the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding And The Meaning Of Things.

In reality -- as opposed to a tidy hour of reality TV -- clearing a house of clutter doesn’t work in the long run to stop hoarding impulses, Frost explained. Without things like long-term cognitive behavior therapy to help people change the nature of their attachment to possessions, a person who hoards will find their house is soon filled to the brim again.

But not everyone finds the shows are without value. Some hoarding sufferers have credited reality TV for helping them realize they might have a problem. The BPS report cites one anonymous source who wrote, “Before the programs, I didn’t realize there was help out there. It would have helped me to have this information years ago.”

Another anonymous source added, “It was only when the programs were on television that I thought it’s actually a mental health problem. Before that I just thought I’m creating clutter."

"I think greater awareness amongst the general population is a good thing, and if it encourages people or their families to seek help then that is great,” said the BPS report's co-author, clinical psychologist Sophie Holmes. "But we have a responsibility to also consider the mental health needs of the people on the shows."

It’s difficult to estimate how many people are affected by hoarding disorder, but past research indicates that as many as two to five percent of the population may be affected to some degree, according to the American Psychological Association. A large 2013 study estimated the prevalence in the U.K. at just 1.5 percent.

People who struggle with hoarding are also more likely to have experienced a traumatic event in the past, suffer from PTSD or depression and be on the autism spectrum disorder, according to the BPS report. Hoarding disorder is also characterized by trouble making decisions, procrastination and an inability to organize. These traits can contribute to a person’s inability to discard possessions to the point where the accumulation of objects interferes with their every day life.

For instance, people who hoard may find they may no longer be able to sit down at a table and chair, or sleep on their bed, because there are too many things in the way. Someone with the disorder rationalizes why they can't discard broken appliances, gifts they never use, and even objects that clearly have no emotional or financial value, such as newspapers, junk mail, garbage or even dead pets.

A major sign of hoarding disorder is the distress a sufferer feels when someone touches one of their objects or suggests that they throw something away. And when the hoarding becomes hazardous, it can also cut people off from their family members and friends because outsiders may not feel comfortable visiting, and the person with the disorder may not feel comfortable inviting people in.

If you or someone you know thinks you might be suffering from hoarding disorder, reach out to your doctor or mental health professional for help. To find a list of providers in your area, visit the International OCD Foundation’s website for a directory, as well as an online help forums and resources on how to talk to loved ones about hoarding.

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