What is hoarding disorder and how do you recognize it? Psychologist on signs, symptoms and how to help

It is a mental illness that often presents with feelings of shame, isolation and embarrassment.

Hoarding disorder, which includes persistent difficulty letting go of belongings, affects millions of Canadians, especially those over the age of 54.

It is estimated that around two million people in Canada have the disorder, but psychologist and expert Murray Anderson said he thinks that estimate is actually low.

“If we’re talking about local, like in Victoria or Vancouver, we’re normally talking about six percent of the population of those cities,” he said in an interview with CTV Morning Live on Thursday.

“I think it’s closer to 11, which makes it a much higher mental health issue than a lot of existing mental health issues – schizophrenia and such.”

Hoarding disorder was not a standalone diagnosis until 2013, he said. As for what it looks like, Anderson said it’s important that people who “just pick up a lot of stuff” and find solace in it aren’t confused with those to whom the diagnosis applies.

“My wife always jokes ‘If you want to see a treasure, show them your record collection. Take them downstairs,'” he said.

“Really what happens when it comes to a mental health issue is no laughing matter. You can tell that person is extremely anxious about having one of those objects, even if it cannot use that room, such as a kitchen or a bedroom, for its primary function.”

Anderson also said that for people with the disorder, when areas of the home are cleaned, they are quickly “re-cluttered” in less time than it took to fill them in the first place.

“The third thing is the insight these people have into the problem. Often these people are honest people, they have good relationships – not all of them, but outside the home they are able to connect with people. — and have a solid job,” Anderson said.

People with the disorder are able to function at all levels of employment, he said, citing doctors and lawyers as examples.

“But they have very little insight when it comes to a problem in their homes, so there’s a very big gap between insight outside the house and inside.”

Anderson was asked how family members or loved ones can offer support to someone they think has the disorder or has been diagnosed.

He said the first step is to approach with respect and choose the language carefully. He said it’s already a highly stigmatized mental illness, so language choices are key in such a delicate conversation.

It is also important to approach the subject from a place where one legitimately wants to help.

Anderson recommends downloading the Frost Clutter Scale, created by Professor Randy O. Frost, to get a feel for the situation. Here is a link to a PDF of the scaleposted by the City of Vancouver on a page about its Hoarding Response Team.

“It’s a very simple progression from zero to nine, zero being that your place is blank, to ‘looks like you had a pizza party and you didn’t clean up’, up to nine, which shows a significant treasure and being fundamentally unable to use this space for what is intended,” Anderson explained.

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