--Original published at Kealey's PSY105 Blog
Shows portraying people with mental illness has been a new and intriguing subgenre in the reality TV world. People are attracted to watching things out of the ordinary. Anything overly dramatic, bizarre, or even disgusting pulls in viewers. In many cases, people living with mental illness have characteristics that fit into at least one of these categories. Shows such as “My Strange Addiction”, “Hoarding: Buried Alive”, or “True Life” catches attention like a car crash. It’s something terrible and uncomfortable but you can’t look away. Many say mental illnesses are exploited by being turned into this type of entertainment. No matter how one views the ethics of these shows, everyone can agree that the coming of these cases to reality TV has increased public awareness of mental illness.
A reporter from “How Stuff Works”, Joe Perritano, argues that reality TV and its portrayal of hoarding is beneficial in shifting our culture to be more aware and understanding of mental illness. He adds and anecdote about Heather, who cured her own hoarding problem after watching TV shows about hoarders. She could identify with the people on TV and took it upon herself to clean up and donate her nonessential items, as the professionals on the shows suggest. Perritano compares hoarding shows to shows like “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant”. Following the release of these shows, teen pregnancy in the United States dropped to the lowest its been in 70 years. 87% of teen viewers reported that watching the show educated them about becoming a parent at a young age, especially the negative consequences of accidental pregnancies (Perritano, 6-7). Optimists argue that exposing real people struggling with mental illnesses can lead to an increase in people seeking treatment. Hoarding shows may not just get the attention of the public and people struggling with hoarding, but media coverage on hoarding has also caused a spike in professionals’ interest. This revival of research on hoarding has led to a more mature understanding of the disorder and has improved treatments and therapy (Van Pelt).
In contrast, many argue that hoarding shows exploit the disorder and are not an accurate representation of most people who hoard. “Everyday Health” asked professionals what their take was on reality shows such as “Hoarders”. Debbie Stanley says, “Many people who hoard are otherwise high-functioning, and their homes reflect this. Unfortunately, the shows reinforce the perception of people who hoard . . . which interferes with the viewer’s potential for empathy and leads to further marginalizing and hiding of hoarding behavior.” In other words, reality TV reinforces stereotypes about hoarding, which discourages people who have the disorder to admit it and seek help. Many professionals also assert that the treatment processes depicted in these shows are not useful, long-term fixes. Many hoarders require months of cognitive behavioral therapy (Everyday Health). Cleaning out a house does not do anything to get hoarders to recede from their impulses. Many experts think that hoarding shows glamorize the disorder, an extreme-makeover kind of entertainment. However, hoarding isn’t a change in clothing style decisions, it is a mental illness that needs many hours of treatment and therapy to help people find peace and happiness (Almendrala).
Personally, I think that it is great that shows depicting real-life hoarders increases public awareness about mental disorders. Unfortunately, the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”, applies here. Shows like “Hoarding: Buried Alive” tend to only show the most severe and unhealthy cases of hoarding disorders. Also, while they may show the hoarders getting temporary treatment through limited talk therapy and an intense clean up campaign, it is not accurate of the true therapy a client with a hoarding disorder needs to have a healthier life in the future. We should respect the struggles of people with mental illness and all strive to improve our own understanding about the trials of things such as hording disorders, so we may be able to help in our own way in the future.