As with any mental health condition, the first step to getting the appropriate care is to recognize the signs. The sooner you detect symptoms, the sooner someone can begin their recovery.

Despite reality TV shows using it as fodder for views, it’s important to know that hoarding is a mental health disorder, and between five and 14 million people in the United States are considered to be compulsive hoarders. People who live alone, are obese, perfectionists, or who have a family member who is—or was—a hoarder, are much more likely to develop the condition themselves. 

If left untreated, hoarding can have many negative consequences, including causing problems in relationships and disrupting work and social activities. It can also lead to safety hazards in the home like tripping, fires, harmful bacteria, and potential rodent infestations. Before reaching that point, we’ve listed and defined the 5 stages of hoarding, so you can protect your loved ones and know if it’s time to intervene.

1. Clutter, but no concern

The lowest stage on the hoarding scale generally means a person isn’t at risk of being a hoarder and doesn’t require action from you. If someone fits into this category, their home is a bit disorganized, safe, and sanitary. The space will have the following conditions:

  • All stairways, doors, and windows are accessible
  • Sufficient ventilation
  • An appropriate number of pets live in the environment
  • Fire and carbon monoxide detectors are installed
  • No unpleasant odors

Clutter may be present in small amounts, but it’s temporary and recognized by the homeowner. The person in question also takes care to maintain a consistent housekeeping routine.

2. Deteriorating hygiene, possible hoarder

If someone exhibits symptoms from the second stage on the hoarding scale, that should raise concerns but may not automatically suggest a hoarding diagnosis. A person who fits into this category might need professional cleaners to organize their space, which will have the following:

  • One important exit blocked with clutter
  • Pet feces and hair in parts of the house
  • Problems with some of the electric and plumbing systems
  • Overflowing garbage points
  • Dirty dishes, laundry, and mold growing in different spaces

At this stage, the person will have an inconsistent housekeeping routine, but likely an awareness that their home is deteriorating in hygiene.

3. Extreme disorganization, likely disorder

This stage is the threshold between a messy, cluttered environment, and one that may be a hoarding environment. The space will be noticeably disorganized and overwhelming, and the individual’s behavior may be changing. Physical signs in the house include:

  • Insect infestations from ants, cockroaches, bed bugs, and lice
  • Piles of objects obstructing key living areas
  • Multiple broken appliances
  • Untidied spills and breaks left for days
  • One room is not being used for its intended purpose (e.g. the bathroom used for storage)

Both medical and cleaning professionals should be called if you worry that someone has reached stage 3. When in contact, specify the details of the person’s living conditions and behavior. For example, if they have become more secluded, refuse to have the camera on during video calls, or struggle to throw items away that clearly have little or no value.

4. Excessive clutter & behavior, contact professionals

Someone fitting stage 4 symptoms is deemed highly likely to have a hoarding disorder. Housing agencies, protective services, elderly services, and animal control may need to be contacted to restore the place of residence, which will contain:

  • Structural damage in the home (e.g. water damage, broken doors, plumbing)
  • An excessive amount of pets and pet waste
  • Clutter preventing entrance to stairs, rooms, and exits
  • Expired and rotting food
  • Odors and backup in sewage points

A coordinated team of cleaners will be needed in this circumstance, alongside mental health experts, social workers, and possibly financial counselors. The homeowner will likely show anxiety about needing items in the future or become distressed when others touch and suggest removing their belongings.

5. Severe unsanitary conditions, hoarding diagnosis

The highest stage on the scale indicates a severe hoarding condition. The affected individual may even be going through legal proceedings like divorce, guardianship, custody, or eviction because of the state of their home. The housing environment will require intervention from a number of professionals as well as family and friends, who can easily identify:

  • Extreme indoor clutter making key living spaces unusable
  • No ventilation
  • Irreparable damage to the home’s structure
  • Disconnected water and/or electrical services
  • Pervasive mold and mildew
  • Animal health is at risk, and animals are a danger to humans

At stage 5, anyone entering the home will require full personal protective equipment such as face masks, safety goggles, gloves, hand sanitizer, and a first aid kit. The cleaning process will also require specialized tools and chemicals to safely restore livable conditions and remove harmful bacteria. 

Coming to terms with the possibility of a loved one being a hoarder is not easy. However, acknowledging when someone may need help can have a hugely positive impact on their journey ahead. Once you’ve accurately determined which stage they’re in, you can move forward with processes like arranging a professional clean-up team to make their home a sanitary, comfortable space again. 

If you or somebody you know is ready to do an extreme hoarding cleanup, speak to Valor’s team of technical cleaning experts.

Image credit: Nick Fewings/Unsplash