Hoarders on TV: Exploitative or helpful?

Reality TV shows like the American show Hoarders showcase someone living in a severe hoarding situation. Hoarding “experts” are brought in and the house is cleaned out. Is this exploiting someone who needs help for a serious mental health issue, or does it actually provide support for and solutions to hoarding behaviours? We reached out to Gail Adams, who is an expert on hoarding. She runs our hoarding support group and our Hoard No More workshop. Here is her opinion.

I have mixed feelings about these kinds of shows. I do think that these shows are more likely to be exploitative than helpful. The US show Hoarders served a purpose initially, as it brought hoarding out into the open. Some of those with hoarding problems had no idea that there were others living with the same problem. However, we are past that now.

I think the TV show is more entertainment than informative or helpful. It needs to make sure it keeps its audience, so it will only show the most extreme cases it can find, and those are exactly the people who are likely to be the most vulnerable. For me it comes down to this: What’s the best option for the person with the hoarding problem? Does that person really know what they’re getting into with the TV show?

Most of the people I have met who have hoarding disorder feel intense shame and go to great lengths to make sure nobody sees their home. I think that most people who appear on the hoarding shows are unlikely to volunteer themselves, and are more likely to do so due to pressure from family, or a crisis situation with a landlord or the city.

Appearing on a hoarding show would be brutal emotionally, and it certainly isn’t a treatment for hoarding. It’s an intervention, on camera, and I don’t know what level of support those on the show actually have. I’m most concerned about what happens to those people after the show ends. When a person with a hoarding problem goes through a rapid cleaning, they typically begin the hoarding behaviours again soon afterwards, and any level of trauma would make things worse. In my opinion, the only way for a severe hoarder to recover is to have a slower longer-term treatment, and even then it is to be expected that minor relapses will recur. I wonder to what extent those on the show will have access to ongoing therapy after the show ends. (I have in the past spoken to a psychologist who appeared on the US TV show Hoarders, but I have never met anyone with a hoarding problem who was on the show.)

Having said that, those with hoarding problems often eventually find themselves in crisis situations with no way out. Sometimes they are forced to clear out their homes in a short amount of time, but are unable to do it on their own. With a landlord, they risk getting evicted, and with the city, they face fines, being locked out of their homes, and ultimately having their homes forcibly cleaned out by city workers or a cleanup company like 1-800-GOT-JUNK. It’s also true that hiring a cleanup company privately, or getting specialized therapy for hoarding, is very expensive. Here in the Montreal area there is not much help available through the system, or even privately. In Canada, we don’t have the same level of expertise as in the US, so it can be a real challenge to find therapists who have the level of experience that would be required.

Perhaps appearing on such a TV show would be an option for someone, but I would proceed very cautiously, and make sure that the person knows what they’re getting into. I myself would not trust what the producer of the show has to say. If I knew someone who was considering going on the show, I would suggest they watch a few episodes of Hoarders, then ask them if they are willing to go through that, and also find out how much time they would get to spend with a specialized therapist throughout the filming and after the show ends.

– Gail Adams

From Share&Care Summer 2022

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