Fatal fire sheds light on hoarding disorder

HADLEY GREEN/ Staff photoPolice and firefighters stand outside the scene of a fatal house fire on Hale Street in Beverly on Saturday.

BEVERLY — When firefighters responded to a fire on Hale Street Saturday morning, the front door was blocked by so much clutter they had to use a chain saw to get in. They ran into the same situation at a side door, which had to be ripped off the hinges because it was also blocked.

The state fire marshal's office said Tuesday that fires in homes with “excessive clutter” led to the deaths of three people in 2016. With this latest tragedy, officials are urging the public to be more aware of the consequences of hoarding, a mental health disorder characterized by the accumulation of a large number of possessions.

“No one thinks a fire will happen to them, but when one does, these conditions put both residents and responding firefighters in harm's way,” State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey said in a press release.

The fire led to the death of Renee Mary, 86, a longtime activist in the city. Officials said the fire was caused by a stove burner that had been left on for an extended period of time, igniting nearby combustibles.

Mary, who lived alone, was found in the front living room and would have had to pass through the fire to get out, officials said. Officials said there were no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors. But without clear pathways to more than one exit, they said it is "unlikely" she could have escaped even with early warning.

"This tragedy underscores why it is so important to have two ways out of every room and a clear pathway to the exits," Beverly fire Chief Paul Cotter said.

A North Shore 'epidemic'

According to North Shore Elder Services Executive Director Paul Lanzikos, hoarding disorder has become an “epidemic” on the North Shore. His agency sponsors the North Shore Center for Hoarding & Cluttering, which offers support groups, counseling and case management services.

“Fifteen years ago we saw it occasionally,” Lanzikos said. “Now we see it all the time.”

Marnie Matthews, a clinical specialist at North Shore Center for Hoarding & Cluttering, said there are many misconceptions about hoarding, including that it's a sign of laziness or being dirty.

“But it truly is a mental health disorder,” Matthews said. “It's hard for people to understand because it's something we can stop ourselves. We know we can pick stuff up and throw it out, so we assume they can do it.”

People with hoarding disorder often struggle with other mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, and have different brain-processing skills, so the solution is not simply cleaning up the clutter.

“If you take the clutter away, you have not dealt with any of the other underlying issues,” Matthews said.

Matthews said it's important to take a “harm reduction” approach when trying to help someone. The center offers a “uniform inspection checklist” to ensure a safe house, starting with unobstructed exits and smoke detectors.

“Rather than saying, 'You've got too many books,' you can say, 'I noticed it was difficult to open the front door. How can I help make you safe?',” Matthews said. “That takes away the judgmental aspect and the focus on the stuff.”

Lanzikos said one reason for the increase in hoarding is the ease with which people can acquire possessions through home-shopping networks and delivery services. Those interactions sometimes provide the social interaction that people lack, he said.

Hoarding is not limited to older people. Lanzikos said it is more likely to be discovered among older people because they have more people coming into their houses to provide assistance.

Matthews said one of the biggest obstacles to people seeking help is shame and embarrassment associated with hoarding. North Shore Center for Hoarding & Collecting offers three support groups run by specialists in hoarding disorders to encourage people to seek help.

“We need to make sure people understand that it's OK to reach out for that help,” she said.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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