There are very few of us out there who are able to maintain a perfectly clean home all of the time. Kids’ toys are strewn about, the clean laundry never gets folded, and the dirty dishes pile up. This is all a normal part of adult life.
But where does a messy home cross the line from “normal” to a sign of mental illness? And what’s the difference between clutter and hoarding? Read on to learn more about how mental illness can cause a messy home, and vice versa.
Is being messy a mental illness?
Being messy or having a messy house isn’t necessarily a sign of mental illness, but it could be. The answer is very dependent upon the severity and the context of the mess.
For example, having a messy bedroom is a stereotypical trait of a teenager. Sometimes, teens could be messy because an underlying mental health condition, like depression, affects their motivation to clean. But other teens might simply be too distracted with their friends to bother with cleaning their room.
To determine whether you need to be worried about a messy house, ask yourself the following questions:
Is this behavior new?
Are you (or the person you’re worried about) typically a neat and organized person? Has your house suddenly become messy with no practical explanation? If messiness is a sudden or new behavior, then it could be a sign of an underlying mental health problem.
Is there an explanation for the mess?
There are many different reasons for why people have messy homes, and mental illness is only one possible explanation.
For example, one of the most common reasons why people have messy homes is because of a lack of time. Others might be messy because there is a toddler in a home and it feels impossible to tidy up after them.
Clearly, these practical explanations aren’t symptoms of mental illness. Sometimes, people just can’t keep up with cleaning their homes, and this is perfectly normal.
Are you upset by the mess?
One key indicator that a messy house is a problem is when the clutter significantly bothers you. Some people (most people, according to the research) feel better in a clean home – they have better focus and less stress.
But we’re not all alike, and some people may feel like their creativity or freedom is stifled in a super-tidy home. Others could simply prefer to spend their time on other activities rather than maintain a clean house.
If you feel comfortable and happy in your messy house, then it may not be a problem. But if you wish you could have a clean home but can’t feel motivated enough to clean, then it could be a sign of a mental illness.
Is the mess physically harmful?
People have different levels of tolerance for mess. But your home should always be safe to live in.
If the mess in your home has gotten to a level that makes it dangerous or toxic to live in it — for example, if you have pests in your home or you can’t walk safely into other rooms – then it could be a sign of a mental illness like hoarding disorder.
Are there other signs of mental illness?
Mental illnesses almost always have multiple signs and symptoms. Usually, if a messy house is a sign of someone’s mental illness, it won’t be the only one.
For example, is your messy house accompanied by other symptoms of depression, like low energy and a chronically sad or empty mood? Do you have any of the symptoms of hoarding disorder?
A messy house, on its own, isn’t usually enough to diagnose someone with a mental illness. It’s important to talk to a mental health professional so they can make an assessment and provide the correct diagnosis.
Is messiness a symptom of depression?
One of the most common mental health reasons why people have a hard time maintaining an organized home is depression.
A messy house, in itself, isn’t a symptom of depression. But it can certainly be caused by depression, especially if a person has other symptoms.
Depressive disorders like major depression cause many symptoms that might be linked to a messy home, such as:
Low or empty mood
Lack of interest in life activities
Fatigue or low energy
Lack of motivation
Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
To illustrate, if a person has chronically low energy due to their depression, then they aren’t likely to feel up to cleaning their home. Their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness may make them feel like they aren’t able to clean their home.
Depression can affect motivation so deeply that people can start losing the will to maintain basic self-care practices, including bathing and maintaining a clean home.
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Sometimes, a messy house can be a sign of hoarding disorder. Hoarding disorder is a mental health condition that causes people to accumulate an excessive amount of things with no real value. Some experts think it’s related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), while others say it’s related to dementia.
Hoarding disorder is different from messiness in that it’s not just about the disorganization of things – it’s about the accumulation of them. People with hoarding disorder accumulate more and more things and have a very hard time getting rid of them.
Many people with hoarding disorder have very limited space in their homes to move because so much space is taken up by things that have accumulated. In addition, people with hoarding disorder face extreme emotional distress when others try to remove these accumulated things from their home.
People with hoarding disorder may continue accumulating things even when the home becomes unsafe to live in. They may even be unable to let go of things that others would consider trash, like leftover food or old newspapers. The unsafe living conditions often have a significant negative impact on their interpersonal relationships.
Often, people with hoarding disorder don’t realize they have a problem, which can make treatment difficult. In contrast, people who have messy or cluttered homes, even if it’s due to another mental illness like depression, would gladly appreciate any help getting their home organized.
In addition, people who are simply messy (without hoarding disorder) don’t experience the same emotional distress at the thought of letting go of items without any value.
Does clutter affect your mental health?
The relationship between a messy house and mental health goes both ways. In other words, mental illnesses like depression and hoarding disorder can cause a messy house, but living among clutter can also contribute to worse mental health.
Research has found that a messy home is linked with worsening well-being. For example, a 2020 study found that both adults and kids who lived in disorganized households were more likely to experience cognitive and behavioral problems. A cluttered home also contributed to higher family conflict.
Another study found that people who live in cluttered homes were more likely to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol over the long term can contribute to health consequences like diabetes and high blood pressure.
Is clutter ever positive?
However, clutter is also a personal preference. Some people aren’t as negatively affected by a messy home as others, and they may even reap rewards from it. Albert Einstein, who had a famously messy desk, once joked, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
One study found that people assigned a messy room were twice as likely to choose a “new” option rather than a “classic” option. In other words, messy people may be more creative and more comfortable with novelty.
The same study found that people assigned the messy room were also able to solve brain puzzles faster.
How to organize your home if you live with
Some people prefer living in cluttered or messy homes. But if you’re not one of the few who do, then it’s important to keep a tidy home to maintain positive mental health. But when you’re already living with a mental illness, like depression, then it can be difficult to gather enough motivation to clean your home.
Here are some tips that may help.
Whether you have depression or not, it can be overwhelming to think about completely overhauling a messy house. Instead, break up the task into smaller chunks.
For example, which room can you start with? Even an entire room may be too big of a goal – is there a certain corner of a particular room you can start organizing? Remember that organizing your home is likely to be a long process, so set realistic expectations.
Get rid of things
Sometimes, your house may be cluttered because you simply have too much stuff. It’s impossible to keep a tidy home when there’s not enough space for all of the things you’ve accumulated.
To combat this, start getting rid of accumulated clutter. You can divide this task up into categories – for example, start with clothes, move onto paperwork, and so on. There are many different criteria to choose what to keep and what to get rid of. Any of them can be effective, as long as you’re clearing out space in your home.
If you feel an extreme amount of emotional distress at the thought of getting rid of things, you may have hoarding disorder. Hoarding disorder is a serious health condition that requires treatment.
Remember your “why”
Make a list of why it’s important to you to live in a clean home. When you have depression, it’s difficult to stay motivated. But writing down your “why” can help you stay inspired.
Connect to a deeper reason for cleaning your home than simply because you feel like you “should.” How would your life be better if your home was more organized? How would you feel differently?
Treat underlying health conditions
Lastly, if you live with depression, then you may need professional treatment to get to a point where these symptoms are no longer interfering with your ability to maintain a clean home. For example, if depression-related fatigue prevents you from cleaning your house, then you need treatment to get past this.
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