Digging for truth in hoarding TV shows

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By Nicholas Sauma, Reporter

Television shows about hoarding depict people trapped in piles of papers, mountains of objects, and every room packed to the brim with stuff.  It makes good television, but is it real?  
UNO’s Grace Abbott School of Social Work hired Christiana Bratiotis, who has specialized in researching hoarding for nearly a decade now.  Her background in mental health practice, research, and teaching made her the perfect source for the truths behind the misconceptions about hoarding.
Bratiotis arrived in Omaha just before the semester started from Boston University where she did her postdoctoral fellowship.  
“I chose UNO, and specifically the School of Social Work, because the faculty here are so devoted and I wanted an opportunity to teach and mentor students,” Bratiotis said.
Hoarding, as Bratiotis explained, is now considered a stand alone mental health disorder under the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum.  It affects roughly five percent of Americans and has been found to be genetically linked.  It is characterized by three problems: collecting too many items, having difficulty getting rid of items, and problems with organization, according to the International OCD Foundation.  It cannot be treated by conventional methods of medication and therapy, but a new behavioral therapy program has been developed by with some solid results.
Since she started studying hoarding as a doctoral student, Bratiotis has put her research to work.  
“I specialize in community responses to hoarding.  When it crosses from a private to public health and safety realm,” she said.
In fact, she was offered a job by one of the television series on hoarding, but declined it because she felt the shows were not offering the very best tested intervention techniques or therapy options.  Instead, she maintains a list of hoarding task forces online, and is an author of the “The Hoarding Handbook: A Guide for Human Service Professionals.”  She hopes her research can continue to help professionals and students alike to better understand hoarding.  
“I’m excited to be a part of a field that’s just emerging,” Bratiotis said. “It’s only about 25 years old.”
The television shows, like TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” are probably the most familiar connection people have to hoarding.  Bratiotis said she had mixed feelings on how they were conducted.  
“The sociologist in me sees the value in the media bringing attention to this, which leads to attentiveness to the issue,” she said.
However, she said they find the most extreme, sensationalized cases for television, and that going into anyone’s house and throwing away a truckload of their possessions is too traumatizing.
“There is a public misconception that hoarding and squalor are the same thing,” Bratiotis said. “Hoarding is about volume.  Squalor is about filth.”
So far, Bratiotis only teaches master’s level courses, but she said she gets plenty of curious people who want to know more about hoarding, and doesn’t discourage anyone from asking.  Within the three months she’s been at UNO, she has already branched out into community projects including Project Harmony, a network for abused children, as well as the Region 6 Behavioral Health Force, which focuses on behavioral health issues.
Bratiotis plans to get involved in more community programs, but also stressed that she is at UNO because she wants to be a mentor to students entering into clinical practice in the mental health field.  
“My training is in clinical practice, but I try to balance my research, practice, and teaching because I love them all,” she said.
So, go ahead and watch another episode of your favorite show featuring hoarding, and realize that it’s actually a real problem for some of the population.  The shows are a great introduction to how serious hoarding can be, but if you’re looking for the facts see if you can talk to one of the newest faculty members in the CPACS building, pick up her book, or check out the International OCD Foundation’s website under hoarding. 

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