Are you a Clutterer or a Hoarder and When is it a Disorder?

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
April 30, 2019

Reality television shows have become a hallmark in today’s pop culture.  Some of these shows offer the public an exclusive glimpse into the private lives of those suffering from various kinds of mental illness.  While true mental illness might be mere speculation in regards to some reality stars, in others it is painfully apparent.  The television show “Hoarders” premiered in 2009 and became the most watched series premiere in A&E’s network history.  Ten years later, “Hoarders” and its related spinoffs are still on the air.


While watching the show, several of us may or may not be willing to admit that we were compelled to visually scan the clutter and lack of organization within our own homes, perhaps fearing that we might be hoarders too.  Before surrendering to the possibility that you might be a strong contender for the eleventh season of “Hoarders”, it is important to distinguish a clutterer from a hoarder and to understand when it is truly a disorder.

A hoarder feels compelled to collect large amounts of items that have little to no value to them.  A person who hoards cannot bring themselves to throw anything away.  Items accumulate, pose safety risks as it pertains to fire hazards and trips and falls, and negatively impacts a person’s relationships and overall functioning.  In 2013, hoarding became classified as its own disorder in the DSM-5 as opposed to its previous classification as a symptom of OCD.  Some research has attributed hoarding to be an extreme form of OCD, while other studies imply that hoarding may be related to other mental health conditions, such as ADHD or dementia.

In contrast, while a clutterer may live in disorder and disarray, the accumulation of items never poses a safety risk and can be organized and straightened up with focused effort.  Like hoarding, a clutterer also collects objects and has difficulty letting go.  However, these items usually have some type of personal meaning, value, or nostalgia attributed to them.  Clutter can be largely subjective, as different people have varying levels of comfort and tolerance thresholds to disorganization.  Individuals with problematic clutter may have trouble keeping their home organized and tidy, even after cleaning, as the chaos always seems to return.  However it is only when clutter negatively impacts daily functioning, or poses a significant problem to you or others, that it may be a sign of a disorder.

Whereas clutter can be challenging and subjective, hoarding is clearly a mental health issue.  Cluttering may potentially lead to hoarding behaviors, but hoarding is only diagnosed when a person acquires a large amount of useless objects without being able to discard them.  While clutter may be isolated to storage areas or certain rooms of a person’s home, hoarding takes over and prevents living spaces from being utilized as they are intended.  A hoarder will be unable to cook in the kitchen or sleep in their bedroom due to exorbitant amounts of items and objects.  In a hoarding situation, movements are inhibited, exits may be barricaded, and everyday functioning is impaired.  The main difference between a clutterer and a hoarder is that a clutterer may not have the time or ability to organize their mess, whereas a hoarder’s mental state plays a major role in their condition.

So before you resign yourself to the fact that you will undoubtedly be chosen for the next season of “Hoarders”, it is important to understand the difference between a clutterer and a hoarder.  Types of collected items, methods of acquisition, appearance and functionality of the home, and reasons for the disorganization and disarray will help you to make this distinction.

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

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