photos: The Vancouver Island Health Authority is working to address stigma around hoarding, a widely talked about yet misunderstood mental health condition. Photo: Ross Pollack / flickr.

Vancouver Island action team makes headway on hoarding

About five per cent of the population in Canada suffers from hoarding. That’s just two per cent less than depression—one of the most common mental health conditions. Megaphone news editor Katie Hyslop investigates a widely discussed yet misunderstood mental illness where, on Vancouver Island, the local health authority is taking new steps forward in addressing the stigma related to the condition.

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Thanks to popular TV shows like TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive or Animal Planet’s Confessions: Animal Hoarding, hoarding— an inability to stop acquiring “stuff,”

or throw any of it away—is receiving unprecedented public attention.

Unfortunately, a more nuanced public understanding of the condition hasn’t followed our popular fascination with it.

Hoarding was recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the first time in 2013. But stigma can prevent sufferers from seeking help, says Dr. Eric Ochs, clinical leadfor Vancouver Island Health Authority’s Hoarding Education and Action Team (HEAT), which started three years ago.

Hoarding-focused television shows “actually make a lot of judgments, and talk about ‘catastrophe’ and ‘horror,’ and ‘look at this mess!’” says Ochs. “That kind of response is not making anybody feel less stigmatized.”

Still, most hoarders usually don’tsee their actions as problematic, he says. “They tend to be attached to their things, so it’s got a positive association, even though it’s causing trouble.”

The trouble hoarding causes extends beyond an inability to host dinner parties. Hoarding is a safety hazard when stuff blocks emergency exits or flammable materials are stored too close to heaters. It can also spill over into the workplace, costing people their jobs.

Ochs estimates about five per cent of the population suffers from hoarding. That’s just two per cent less than depression— one of the most common mental health conditions. There’s no definitive cause

for hoarding, though it is associated with depression, as well as anxiety, schizophrenia, and brain damage.

University of British Columbia psychology professor Sheila Woody,who studies hoarding in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, says hoarding crosses economic lines. But it’s more apparent among low-income people living in DTES hotels because, as she puts it, “a person who has a really small place to live is going to meet that criteria faster.”

While no direct correlation between income and hoarding has been found, Woody says people with functioning impairment disorders like hoarding are often low-income. “It’s not entirely clear if that’s because maybe the disorder leads them to having a lower income,” she says.

Island Health Authority’s team has a website and phone number for people who hoard, or those who love them. Ochs says there’s little in the way of mental health funding specifically for hoarding on the island. But mental health workers from HEAT, modeled after similar teams in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Toronto, are coordinating with fire safety officers to help hoarders before their “stuff” consumes them.

It’s hoarding harm reduction that puts a person’s physical health and safety first. “After that we can talk about folks who might be interested in improving their mental health and making their lives better,” says Ochs.

There’s no definitive cure for hoarding. But it can be curbed with support. HEAT started the island’s only monthly peer- support group earlier this year. As part of efforts to address stigma around hoarding, the group is convened for people dealing with what organizers call “clutter.”

Group leader Ochs hopes group members will volunteer to lead future sessionswith his support. “We’re going to get a whole range of people in there,” he says. “We’re going to talk about strategies, understanding the nature of the problem.”



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