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Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw

Psychology in the Media: Britain's Biggest Hoarders

28 April 2017 | by Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw

Do you ever find yourself shouting at the TV or radio in response to the manner in which complex psychological issues are reduced or misrepresented? You’re not alone!

Over the last few months, under the expert guidance of Dr Stuart Whomsley, Dr Abigail Oldfield and I have been lucky enough to take part in the upcoming Channel 4 programme Britain’s Biggest Hoarders.

Generally shows like this all seem to share a similar theme and format, focussing on a clearance team removing a hoard of belongings with before and after pictures of the house in different stages of order/disarray.

And, like many psychological issues presented in the media, the difficulties of hoarders tend to be rather over-simplified (with the input of Clinical Psychologists either steeped in mystery or not mentioned at all), leaving this valuable perspective and treatment approach out of the public understanding.

As a clinical psychologist my hope is our involvement will go some small way to redress the balance, showing some of the complex factors leading to and maintaining an individual’s difficulties around hoarding, as well as the devastating affect this problem can have on people’s lives and relationships.

Hoarding is now recognised as a distinct mental health difficulty affecting an estimated 2-5% of adults in the UK (NHS Choices). Individuals struggling with hoarding can compulsively acquire objects until living spaces become excessively cluttered, and in many cases both unsafe and unpleasant to live in.

Even when living conditions become incredibly difficult individuals who hoard have extreme difficulty discarding objects and often avoid doing so due to overwhelming emotions and unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving.

In an attempt to demystify and destigmatise the condition, the programme we were involved in follows the experiences of two couples through the process of a multidisciplinary approach to assessment, formulation, and treatment, with intensive psychological therapy provided on an individual and couple basis, in an attempt to capture the everyday reality of what it means to live with these difficulties.

One of our participants, Scott, was undoubtedly a kind, funny, generous, and intelligent fellow – but his life was being completely overwhelmed by hoarding and related difficulties.

Together we were able to identify where his hoarding difficulties began and the many unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaviour which had led to him becoming stuck in an exhausting cycle of acquiring, reorganising and moving around his vast hoard of electrical, mechanical and computing parts.

Initially we worked with a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) approach but, led by Scott’s individual needs, we moved to an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach to tackling his difficulties.

Scott’s creative side fully embraced the metaphors used within the ACT approach and he worked hard to identify and start to move towards rediscovering different things to value in life – things which, due to his hoarding, had largely fallen by the wayside.

It was wonderful to start to see him become enthused and hopeful that he could change, and working to support him in his dual goals of reclaiming his house from his hoard and getting his relationship with his wife Faith back on track allowed me to see first-hand just how all-consuming and exhausting the issue of hoarding can be.

Scott’s case also perfectly illustrates the issue of misrepresentation in the media, as prior to this programme he took part in a similar production in which the organisers just moved things from one room to another in order to show a clean room… but a week later it was all right back where it started!

This situation was a first for me when it comes to engaging with media work, but something that I believe is incredibly valuable to further the public understanding of mental health issues and the role of Clinical Psychology.

The producer I worked with, Katy Lock (Blink Films) was incredibly psychologically minded and caring, which I have been led to believe is not always the case, so I think I we received a very nurturing and supportive introduction to this type of work.

But who knows? I’ve not seen the final programme yet so I hope it’s everything we all want it to be and that Scott is still going strong with his recovery.

Britain’s Biggest Hoarders is scheduled to air on Channel 4, on Monday 01st May, at 20:00




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