Ottawa hoarding study helps combat potentially dangerous disorder

A year-long study of hoarders in Ottawa has armed social workers and housing officials with new tools and understanding to help combat the disorder.

Year-long study by Options Bytown, Montfort Renaissance, tracked 15 hoarders

This 2015 file photo shows an apartment in New York City surrounded by hoarded newspapers, clothes, books and other items. (Jack Sherratt/Associated Press)

A year-long study of hoarders in Ottawa has armed social workers and housing officials with new tools and understanding to help combat the disorder. 

Options Bytown, a non-profit housing corporation, and Montfort Renaissance, a francophone community health agency, presented the results of their study on Wednesday.

Michelle Nouwens, 57, was able to get her hoarding under control with the help of "clutter coaches." (CBC)
Their research tracked 15 Ottawa residents and found many of the participants struggled with serious mental health problems.

However the study found those subjects who worked with so-called "clutter coaches" saw a more than 40 per cent improvement in their living standards.

Lise Girard is the senior director of mental health and addiction at Montfort Renaissance. She said her agency wanted to tackle the issue of hoarding because it recognized the serious health threats it poses.

Hoarding leads to isolation

Girard said she saw clients growing more isolated as a result of their clutter.

"They were ashamed of inviting people over to their apartment or their house because there was no place to sit. Stuff was all over the place. They couldn't find the things they needed."

Girard said some of the 15 subjects also feared eviction as a result of their hoarding habits.

Michelle Nouwens, 57, said that was a real concern for her. "The owner of my house comes into my room quite regularly and she's the one who decided that I had too much stuff in my room," said Nouwens, one of the 15 subjects of the study.

Lise Girard, with Montfort Renaissance, says hoarding is a public health and safety issue. (CBC)
Nouwens called the city to help her get her hoarding under control and was directed to Montfort Renaissance.

"It took a few months, but slowly but surely, with lots of patience and respect they helped me de-clutter my room," she said.

Hoarding dangerous, fire officials warn 

Gwen Lewis, a fire prevention officer with the Ottawa Fire Service, said it's important for firefighters to know when they're entering a hoarding house for their own safety.

"If suppression crews arrive to a working fire and they're alerted already that it is a possible hoarding case, they know that the fire [will] burn differently because there will be an excessive fire load, and that load can affect neighbouring units or neighbouring houses," she said.

Lewis said six per cent of the population have hoarding tendencies. Ottawa Fire Service works with the mental health associations and Ottawa Public Health to make sure hoarders remain safe.

"[Hoarding] is recognized as a mental health issue," said Lewis.

She said fire officials keep tabs on hoarders when they get information from the public.

Hoarding behaviour specialist Elaine Birchall believes shame often prevents hoarders from seeking treatment. (Unposed Photography)
"If we receive complaints that individuals are possible hoarders, we can respond and we will check in on them to make sure that they do have a working smoke alarm on every level of their home."

Why do people hoard?

Elaine Birchall is a hoarding behaviour specialist in Ottawa who has counselled people struggling with the disorder for 14 years. Birchall says three main factors influence hoarding: 

  • Genetics: A high proportion of people who hoard have a close family member who also hoards. "That means a mother, father, sister, brother," said Birchall. Hoarders often model their behaviour on that of family members. 
  • Co-morbidity: Having an accompanying mental or physical health disorder puts people at a higher risk of hoarding. Suffering from depression, generalized anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder or addiction can make people susceptible. "They don't cause the hoarding but what they seem to do is add an additional layer of vulnerability," Birchall said.
  • Chronic disorganization: People who are very disorganized can become hoarders after a traumatic incident. "A big event happens that destabilizes them, or a series of smaller events happen and there isn't time to re-calibrate," said Birchall. "They get to a point where they are overwhelmed and things get out of hand quickly."

When it comes to confronting the issue, Birchall believes shame plays a big role in keeping people silent. She also believes the stigma surrounding the disorder keeps people isolated from their family and friends and prevents them from seeking proper treatment.

"Nobody gets rewarded for being a hoarder. No one says job well done. But if you go to the other extreme and you are excessively neat and tidy and meticulously, scrupulously clean, you'll get a high five."