Hoarders, The Television Show. Helpful or Hurtful?

Okay, well, I’m not exactly up on the latest in popular culture. So while Hoarders is nothing new to many of you out there,  it was new to me. I caught a couple of episodes this week for the first time almost by accident while I was working on the computer with the TV on in the background.

The next thing I knew, nearly two hours had passed. Another Hoarders episode was coming on, and I WANTED TO WATCH. It took real strength to turn off the TV and go to bed, which is what I really needed to do.

My first instinct, honestly, was repulsion. Not at the people depicted on TV or their situation, but repulsion that someone out there thought this would be entertaining. And, to be truthful, repulsion at the level of my own interest in the show.

Full Disclosure: I’m not a reality TV watcher. I’ve always thought reality TV simply elevates the old circus freak show to a broader audience. I know people love it  — from Survivor to Jon & Kate to the Bachelor. Eh. Just not for me.

I know hoarders, and I had one in my family. I had a very difficult time letting go of my mother’s belongings after she died, and I can empathize with those people who react with anger and frustration when people start throwing their things out, no matter how much they resemble trash. I was frustrated and saddened that these people and their mental illnesses would be subjected to this level of public humiliation. I was annoyed that the deeper issues behind hoarding weren’t really explored, and I felt like the hard parts were being swept under the rug. Where was the slow, probably agonizing therapy that I knew must occur for these people to actually get help and get better?

And then, I found this lovely site called the Children of Hoarders. And I watched the video of that lovely man, Jason, telling his story about living with a mother who was a hoarder. And I wanted to cry and scream and hug him at the same time. And I realized that, while I still think the show is simplifying a very complicated problem, it is doing something that I admire. It’s bringing attention to mental illness. It’s giving people hope. It’s telling them they are not alone. It’s telling them they can find help. It is supporting the families of the mentally ill — people who need far more support than they typically receive.

So maybe, just maybe, a television show can help hoarders move past the stigma of their illnesses and take the steps to rebuild their lives. I still haven’t made up my mind about the show. Watch this space as I continue to struggle with the clash of mass media and the depiction of mental illness.


13 thoughts on “Hoarders, The Television Show. Helpful or Hurtful?

  1. Jason’s story melted my heart as well. I grew up in a Hoarding home too. I think the reason why they don’t cover the therapy part more deeply is because they are only 1 hour episodes, not including commercial breaks. I never even realized this had a name until the show came out. Then it all came together, I sat in shock, horror, and relief watching that first episode, yelling at the TV, OMG THAT WAS HOW I GREW UP!! I always knew it wasn’t normal by any means, but kids adapt to what they have to to survive.

    • Liz,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. Your reaction is exactly why I’m beginning to think that there may be value in this type of programming. Bringing this type of mental illness into the greater public consciousness could have great value in reaching out to the families of the mentally ill and hopefully getting them help. And that is certainly a cause I fully support.

  2. I have had mental illness in my family for generations, and have chosen a career working with the mentally ill- specifically those who suffer from compulsive hoarding and acquiring disorders. Though I have not watched either of the two shows on TV now, I am aware of each. The A&E show called the premier year to see if we were interested in participating in an episode. My knee-jerk reaction was one of digust. I could not believe that an Arts and ENTERTAINMENT channel would exploit the mentally ill on national tv for people to gawk and laugh at. On the contrary, I am now currently working on an episode for the The LEARNING Channel, as I was glad to see that they do focus on the underlying mental illness and do not force a whole house clean up on the client. The gentleman with whom I am working is doing so in hopes that his appearance will inspire others to seek out assistance to recover from their underlying illnesses which may be causing their acquiring and hoarding behaviors. My wish is that they would follow and document the client through their journey towards recovery, and not just film the first weekend and again one day, one month later. It is what happens in between those two days that is what most hoarders fear and perhaps seeing the ups and downs of the process would be more relatable and inspirational.

    • Nicole,

      Thank you for your eloquent explanation of many of my own frustrations about mass media and this type of show. I’d really like to know when the episode with your client airs. Please come back and share your own experiences as an “insider” — I think that would be fascinating information.

  3. Thank you for writing a most candid, thoughtful post about the show, Hoarders. While I have an appointment very shortly, I wanted to take the time to acknowledge your sharing all your points of view – how generous. As one of the organizing experts on the show, I can tell you that nearly every camera man, producer, expert shed tears during our filming – most often when we have to go our separate ways.

    One great thing about the show is that every hoarder is offered “after care” in terms of therapy and organizing services – people who live locally who will continue to work with the hoarder. This is free to them so that they are not left high and dry after the show is done.

    Finally, after studying and now speaking on the aspects of “Education vs. Exploitation” in the media – I have come to realize that with this particular show, we have been able to reach and help the childen and families of the hoarders – which seems to “break the cycle” of the hoarding in families. In fact, the video you saw from Jason is the young man I worked with and to this day – both the therapist from the show and I remain friends with him. We both feel proud to call Jason a friend.

    There is so much more to be said, but I wish to thank you again for your thoughtful remarks. I send you the best. Respectfully, Dorothy Breininger

    • Dorothy,

      Thank you so much for your insightful comment. I’m glad to hear there is support for the people who appear on the show and their families. It is sort of implied at the end, but not really explored. I’d be interested to see how the families depicted on the show are doing after much more time has passed.

      You are doing important, valuable work. Please feel free to share more insights on the “insider” viewpoint of this show. Education is the first step to understanding.

  4. A&E Hoarder is the reason I became a professional organizer. The first time I watched the show, I wanted to jump through the TV, hug the hoarder and their family, and put on a pair of gloves to help.

    It if were not for this show, I would not have the privilege and knowledge to work with Hoarders and their families.

  5. I found your piece by way of Children of Hoarders. The ambivalence you express is something I feel, too. I wrote a little essay about this–actually it was a review of the recent book about hoarding–and now I’m ambivalent about the ambivalence I expressed there, but here’s the link in case you are interested in further ruminations on the moral issue of showing (exploiting?) hoarding:


    • Hi W.D.,

      Thanks for the link to your insightful post. I like the line in the last paragraph, “Indeed, the average gated MacMansion holds a good half-Collyer of belongings, once you count all the Waterford, Steinway, Escalade, and Braun. Just because the Merry Maids keep the baronial hallways immaculate, wine glass tags in a drawer of their own, might we not also find the mansion mac’s ownership gross and unbecoming?”

      That’s a point I’ve been debating in my mind since I wrote this little post. You put it in a much more succinct way than I’ve been able to work out in my head.

  6. I am also the child of a hoarder. My mother, however, is not as extreme as what is seen on TV. There are no hidden dead animals or trash on the floor. She does keep everything though. For example, my baby clothes (I’m 42). I’m not talking about a special outfit or two, I’m talking about boxes and boxes. I could very easily see her slip into a more “advanced” stage of hoarding if something very emotionally traumatic happened to her. I have noticed since she has been watching Hoarders, she is more ready to let go of things. Maybe because the show often talks about how the hoarder progresses from one stage to another? I do agree with Nicole, I would like to see the show spend more time on the follow up care so that those watching can see that it can be a successful event.

    • Thanks so much for bringing up an important point — if someone sees the show and can relate, it could inspire small changes and/or prevent the problem from getting worse. I must say that since I’ve watched it, it has influenced a few of my decisions about what to keep and what to give away, particularly related to kid things.

      One positive effect: My kitchen counter has never been cleaner.

  7. I believe that this show exploits the individuals with a mental illness who are in a very vulnerable position. It is entertainment for some. I don’t believe that having an individual, family member sign dozens of waivers releasing them from a lawsuit, providing the individual with a clean up crew, therapy, personal organizer is any excuse for this exploitation.
    This is obviously a pervasive societal problem, and, as such, it should be dealt with in a way that preserves an individuals dignity and respect vs. turning the “hoarder” into a side show.

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