July 1st, 2014

Task forces address hoarding

Task forces to address hoarding in communities are piling up around the nation.

So says hoarding expert Randy Frost, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Smith College in Mass., who estimates about 100 across the U.S.

“They are springing up all over the place,” says Frost, co-author of “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.”

“They are populated primarily by service professionals who run into the problem of hoarding.” That can include first responders, health department personnel, housing officials, child and family services, mental health and animal welfare agencies, he says.

While Massachusetts has several hoarding task forces, other states in the New England area are slowly seeing the start and growth of task forces. Vermont and New Hampshire each have one, while Maine has three, the first one in Portland had its first meeting in 2012. The other task forces are in York County and Bangor.

The Greater Portland Hoarding Task Force has 25-30 people who meet monthly to address hoarding in the area. Members include psychologists, case managers, police, fire and city officials among others, says Eric Grainger, MSW, director of hoarding services for Shalom House Inc., an agency that helps find and maintain housing for those dealing with mental illness. While education for the community and those dealing with hoarding is the main goal of the task force, “It does act as a support for those trying to assist those dealing with hoarding,” says Grainger. Shalom House also hosts a support group for those who hoard.

While all task forces are different, the Greater Portland Hoarding Task Force started a volunteer program, in which volunteers are educated about hoarding and trained to be a support in helping people sort and donate, says Grainger. Also, one of the subcommittees of the task force focuses on hoarding research.

“People just think that those who hoard just need some time to clean and see a therapist. What we have found works is something like an addiction support group, in some ways like an AA meeting,” says Grainger. “They are there to get an education and also be in an environment with people who understand that disorder and won’t be judgmental. The volunteers are like sponsors. Our goal is to get people into the relapse prevention stage. In the group, we talk about working the program.”

Hoarders can be any age, but the disorder is more prevalent and more severe in older populations, says Frost.

Grainger says Maine has a high population of elderly so he suspects the state deals with more cases of hoarding, although there are no exact figures, something the task force would like to investigate.

Grainger says hoarding has only been identified as its own disorder in the DSM in the last year. Previously it was listed under OCD. “This isn’t a character flaw, this isn’t just because people are messy,” he says. “It’s a legitimate mental health disorder. These are folks that have compulsion to acquire, have difficulty letting go and their brains are wired different. There is even something that has been termed clutter blindness. We know they isolate and they are often estranged from family, there are often life-long battles, they literally become blinded by how bad the clutter is.”

Trauma often makes hoarding worse and those who hoard don’t think they have a disorder. About half of those who hoard also deal with depression and/or anxiety disorders, Frost says.

By Rivkela Brodsky

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