Alumnae/i Feature

Demystifying Hoarding Disorder with Eileen Dacey '17MSW

During the early days of COVID-19 in the US, the news was rife with stories of shortages in stores. From hand sanitizer to cleaning supplies, and inexplicably, toilet paper, Americans across the country found themselves in an unfamiliar situation and “stocked up” on various provisions in response to the uncertainty. Although this behavior might seem normal during these abnormal circumstances, PhD candidate Eileen Dacey ‘17MSW has another label for it: hoarding disorder.

“At the start of this pandemic, we noticed that everyone engaged in some form of panic or bulk purchasing,” explains Dacey. “It’s all based out of fear: fear that things are going to run out, even if it’s not a rational thought. That’s one of the bases of hoarding disorder — folks will want to hold on to or acquire more things, typically out of irrational thoughts.”

The pandemic shed light on the fact that hoarding disorder is very prevalent within our society. In fact, it’s the most common mental health issue that Americans are facing. However, there aren’t many resources for this illness. 

“Hoarding is a much bigger mental health issue than our country acknowledges,” says Dacey. “When you think of common mental health issues, you might think of depression or anxiety, or something that seems a bit more benign as opposed to hoarding, which seems quite devious.”

Dacey was inspired to research hoarding disorder while doing case management in an elder services agency. During this time, she came across many hoarding and extreme cluttering cases but noticed that several vendors of in-home services didn’t want to enter these homes due to their condition.

While Dacey sought supervision on how to proceed with these cases, the advice she received from managers didn’t sit well with her. The strategy centered around forcibly removing items from the home, with the idea that the hoarding behavior would magically disappear.

“In my limited experience on the subject matter, I knew this wasn’t the right answer,” remembers Dacey. “I ended up attending a conference at the North Shore Center for Hoarding and Cluttering (NSCHC) affiliated with North Shore Elder Services (NSES). The first annual conference provided a brief overview of hoarding disorder and how to engage with individuals that are silently struggling. It produces a great deal of shame and embarrassment for them, and that’s when it clicked for me — it’s a mental health issue.”

At this time, Dacey was approaching her first semester in the MSW program at Simmons. Although NSES didn’t have a contract in place with Simmons at the time, Dacey worked with her field advisor and made it her first-year placement because she wanted to know more.

Not only did Dacey learn more about hoarding, but she also expanded on it. As an intern, she noticed that the component of animal hoarding was overlooked. Upon graduating from Simmons, she became the clinical director at NSCHC and made it her mission to become even more informed on animal hoarding. Now working with the New England Center for OCD and Anxiety (NECOA), Dacey is one of the few social workers in Massachusetts that offers clinical support for animal hoarding.

[Hoarding] produces a great deal of shame and embarrassment for them, and that’s when it clicked for me — it’s a mental health issue.

In addition to supporting those struggling with this disorder, she also provides support to animal welfare workers, such as law enforcement and veterinarians. Dacey describes some of the conditions they encounter as “traumatizing.” Animal hoarding falls under the animal cruelty category — it’s a federal offense, and it can be distressing for all parties involved. Dacey provides psychological first aid for the responders to reduce the impacts of burnout and compassion fatigue.

“What I love about my position is that I have the flexibility and independence to develop a program that meets the community’s needs in a variety of ways,” says Dacey. "The services we provide at the clinic are what we consider micro-level interactions. But I can also work in macro practice, and I’ve gotten quite involved in policy and legislative development regarding hoarding. This started with the pursuit of Hoarding Disorder Awareness Week — let’s bring ourselves together to do something.”

The creation of Hoarding Disorder Awareness Week ensures that Massachusetts recognizes the pervasiveness of hoarding disorder. With this proclamation in place, Dacey hopes to see more resources and funding. Ultimately she hopes to alter the way our society views hoarding disorder and “normalize the language — the more we normalize it, the more we’ll see self-referrals.”

Dacey’s advocacy work extends beyond the residents of Massachusetts. Before starting Simmons University's PhD in Social Work program, Rockridge Press approached Dacey to author a book on hoarding. At that time, many professional organizing books were available, like Marie Condo, and a few books focusing on the emotional underpinnings of hoarding — but literature combining these two subjects didn’t exist.

Dacey began writing Reclaim Your Life From Hoarding: Practical Strategies for Decluttering Your Home, Organizing Your Space, and Freeing Yourself in September 2019, finishing the 200-page guide just seven months later in April 2020.

"My inspiration was to create something different than what’s available on the market and have a book that also addresses multiple animal ownership,” explains Dacey. “This book is a self-help book for folks who identify as having some form of a hoarding or cluttering problem, as well as those who realize that they have a propensity of acquiring more stray animals. What can I do about it? Is it problematic? And so they start to question it themselves.”

Ultimately, Dacey wants those with hoarding disorder to recognize that recovery is possible. She finds it most rewarding when her clients begin to see changes and manage their behaviors — it’s what keeps her going.

“Some providers find that this disorder is incredibly hard to treat, that recovery is limited, and that folks might not be able to manage on their own,” says Dacey. “I don’t believe that. I know that if we work on implementing the right tools, the right skills, the right strategies, and we’ve done a lot of that emotional work, that the person can maintain on their own and work towards lifelong recovery.”

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