02/27/2015 12:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rebranding Hoarding: Choice or Affliction?

During a recent discussion with a friend and colleague, she encouraged me, "You need to rebrand hoarding. It just isn't sexy enough to garner the attention and support necessary for the reforms that will make treatment more accessible."

Sexy? I need to make hoarding sexy?


Fortunately, I highly respect her opinion and understood what she was getting at.

Although there have been many recent developments that have brought hoarding behaviors to the masses, individuals who find themselves buried in their trash, treasure, and thoughts are still largely misunderstood and unfairly labeled. The horrific tales of animal hoarding where literally hundreds of animals have barely survived, the popularity of docu-dramas like "Hoarders" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive," and the recent inclusion of a separate Hoarding Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the APA's exhaustive listing of psychological and psychiatric criteria for recognized disorders) have all played parts in developing the public's view of hoarding. Simply, it hasn't been enough.

It doesn't matter how a client comes to me, whether they've been referred by a case manager, a family member, friend, or they've sought out my help on their own, they have commonalities. Perhaps the largest challenge they face is the misconception that they have chosen to live the way they do. Even the most challenging clients I've worked with have, at some point, broken down and admitted that they don't like how they live yet they feel powerless to change it.

It can't be stressed enough, hoarding is not a life choice but a symptom of a mental health disorder. No one chooses to have a mental health issue. No one.

Jumping to the conclusion that someone with a mental health disorder has chosen to be afflicted is as ridiculous as concluding that a child with juvenile (Type 1) diabetes has chosen to have his or her body stop producing insulin. If I sat at a dinner party as someone shared that their child had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and commented regarding the error in judgment of the parent or the affected child for choosing juvenile diabetes, I'd be asked to leave immediately and would likely be blacklisted in moments via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Sadly, people regularly make similarly ignorant comments to my clients, and to me, regarding hoarding behaviors.

"I just don't understand how anyone chooses to live that way. It's so disgusting!"

No one chooses to develop a mental health disorder, and hoarding behaviors are symptomatic of a mental health disorder.

How do we make hoarding sexy? How do we reframe it in an accessible way?

Conversation. Education. Research.

Mental health disorders are not choices we make. Bill Gullan, president at Finch Brands, phrased the problem well:

... we confuse disorders with traits -- or legitimate mental health issues with by-choice reactions to a situation or person. And the consequence is that people suffering from mental or behavioral conditions are seen -- by the boss, media, coach, peer -- as either being weak or willful, that they either can't hack it or choose not to. This leads to the stigma being greater, the sufferer feeling more isolated and the way forward more difficult to find.

As someone who has faced their own mental health challenges and faced head on the shame, condemnation, and ignorance of my family, friends and neighbors, I have some understanding of what it must be like to hear someone tell you that you've chosen to have a problem called hoarding. Additionally, I fully understand, as someone who grew up in a home where these behaviors were the norm, the weight of shame living like this puts on you. No one would choose this.

So let's change the conversation about hoarding and mental health disorders in general. It's time to rebrand hoarding and mental health disorders.

Mental health disorders will likely never be "sexy," but our view of them can be more favorable, more open to conversation, understanding, empathy, and mutual respect. We must rebrand these challenges as the afflictions they are so that those who need help can readily access it. This is an issue for today. We've seen so many other issues move through ignorance and into a common, supportive language that I believe we can do it now.

One person at a time. One day at a time. One call to action at a time.

Start right now. Share this article in your social media networks. Also, to learn more about what we are doing to make treatment for hoarding behaviors more accessible, check out Lightening the Load.