Understanding the Effects of Hoarding on Family and Friends 

From our CEO, Lou Cornish

I was recently asked to provide some information on hoarding and the impact on family and friends who are supporting a loved one living with challenges related to hoarding. When talking to family and friends the message was clear, not only does it have a profound impact on the individual struggling with hoarding, but it also has a major impact on their family and friends, causing emotional, psychological, and sometimes even physical strain on their loved ones. 

Hoarding is often seen as a complex and misunderstood mental illness. Hoarding is recognised as a distinct disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and manifests in an excessive accumulation of items, often accompanied by difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their actual value. This behaviour can escalate over time, transforming living spaces into hazardous environments, impeding daily functioning, and straining relationships. Previous trauma, especially childhood trauma is known to increase the risks of hoarding. The Australian Psychological Society (APS) broadly identifies four major factors that influence hoarding development, dysregulated emotional attachment, information processing deficits, unhelpful beliefs about possessions, and behavioural avoidance (Australian Psychological Society, 2019). 

Family and friends witnessing a loved one struggle with hoarding can experience feelings of sadness, anger, and confusion. Despite their best efforts to intervene or offer support, they feel frustrated due to the challenges in accessing specialised support and the general lack of understanding of hoarding in the community. The stigma surrounding hoarding further complicates matters for family and friends and misconceptions about the disorder often lead to judgment and criticism, rather than compassion and understanding. This societal stigma can prevent hoarders and their loved ones from seeking help or disclosing their struggles to others, exacerbating feelings of shame and isolation.  

Not surprisingly, hoarding can also lead to strained relationships and social isolation. The cluttered living spaces associated with hoarding can make it challenging for family and friends to visit or spend time in the hoarder’s home. Families and friends also find it emotionally difficult to see their loved one living in the condition they are in and feel hopeless and powerless in their ability to help. This isolation can further exacerbate feelings of loneliness and alienation for both the person living with hoarding and their loved ones, leading to a breakdown in communication and support networks. 

Financial strain is another challenge for someone living with hoarding and their family and friends. The costs associated with acquiring, storing, and maintaining excessive possessions can quickly spiral out of control. This financial burden not only affects the person living with hoarding but also places strain on family members who may be responsible for providing financial support. 

Beyond the emotional and financial toll, hoarding can also pose serious health and safety risks for both the hoarder and their family and friends. Cluttered living spaces increase the risk of falls, fires, and other accidents. Piled-up belongings can harbor dust, mould, and allergens, contributing to respiratory issues and other health problems. In extreme cases, the sheer volume of possessions can render homes uninhabitable and result in costly cleanup and restoration efforts, leading to some people becoming homeless. Despite these challenges, it is essential to recognise that recovery from hoarding is possible with the right support and treatment. Family and friends can play a crucial role in this process by offering empathy, encouragement, and practical assistance. 

There is a great need for specialised services that can provide support to people who experience the challenges of hoarding, including holistic models of care that support the whole person, and preventative programs for at-risk cohorts, including specialised support services for young people. If you are supporting someone who is living with hoarding, you can call the Access Mental Health hotline on 1800 332 388. 

As a family member of someone living with hoarding, it is important to remember to take care of yourself in the face of the stressful environment that hoarding can create. Some suggestions for family members include: 

  • Seek support and talk to someone to help manage your own feelings and learn some coping strategies. Peer support groups are also a helpful option. 
  • Seek out other ways of relating to or bonding with your loved one. 
  • Validate your own feelings. 

Mental Health Families and Friends also has our Call2Connect program. Call2Connect is an informal, one one-on-one support option that is for families and friends supporting someone living with mental ill health and or alcohol or other drug use. 

 Australian Psychological Society (2019) ‘Unpacking Hoarding Disorder’, In Psych, 41(5), p.1. 

Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

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