Clutter and depression

Unfortunately, destructive clutter can be a symptom of bipolar disorder or depression. People who are depressed can lose their drive to do most everything, and that may include cleaning up their living spaces and keeping things in order.

Over at the blog Psychology of Clutter, Dr. Ragan writes:

When people do not feel emotionally strong they will often let their environments fall into disarray. If you start therapy and/or start medication, you can begin to feel better, only to be hindered by what is going on outside of you. I often use the term “depressed lifestyle” with my clients. It is hard to feel good when your house or apartment looks like a bomb went off, your friends don’t call anymore, you’ve gotten fat and you look like hell.

If you have a friend or relative who is living in an extremely cluttered living space, you should encourage him or her to seek help from a professional. Sometimes the most meticulously neat person can find themselves in a downward spiral that results in a depressive state surrounded by clutter and disarray. This 180 degree turn for the worse can be a telltale sign that the individual is in need of help.

34 Comments for “Clutter and depression”

  1. posted by Melissa A. on

    This is pretty much how I feel a lot, though you probably wouldn’t know it to see my space. It’s often why I neglect getting things done.

  2. posted by Vanessa on

    I suffer from depression and that is why cleanliness is so important to me – I need my surroundings to be organized and beautiful in order for me to feel calm, happy and in control. When my space is a mess so am I.

  3. posted by Jessi on

    I don’t have clinical depression or anything, but the act of uncluttering, cleaning and organizing my surroundings alleviates stress and boosts my spirit as much as the end results do, and I wonder if the same is true for others.

  4. posted by David on

    With that, it is surely not suggested to move in with messy people if you happen to be very tidy yourself – it’s a long hard road and there’s is no way to remedy it, aside from moving out. Soon.

  5. posted by Spike on

    Tidying and decluttering are great ways to keep me active, deal with stress and clear my mind. However whenever I am feeling down it’s typically the first thing I stop doing. I’d be interested in seeing how depression/thestate of your home relates to OCD.

    Organize IT

  6. posted by mercurial scribe on

    I’m bipolar (manic depressive) and my Mom says you can always tell how I’m doing by the state of our house. And you know what? She’s absolutely right.

    I think people often neglect the importance and affect of one’s environment on their state of mind as well as how their state of mind affects their environment. You can tell a lot about someone by how they live.

  7. posted by J on

    I totally agree with the post. I personally having an ongoing battle with depression & anxiety, and have found when I am more depressed my surroundings become totally overwhelming. I also ahve a friend who suffers from depression and her apartment looked like the swat team raided her place. I think she almost had a panic attack thinking about going home to the mess everyday! Another friend & I set up a time and we went over to clean & de-clutter half of her apartment. She feels so much happier now!

  8. posted by Jasi on

    Grew up in a crazy house. I organized for control over some small part of my life. It helped me through. As an adult, I’m mostly normal. If I get anxious over something I clean or organize until I’m more calm, then I work it out mentally. It’s made a huge difference in my life and how I handle stress.

  9. posted by Pat on

    So true. And I agree mostly with David about living with messy people.
    My husband’s mess is so depressing. (As is mine, but I can clean up mine!) Really — don’t marry/get into a serious relationship with someone who is really cluttered. It will only lead to heartache.

  10. posted by KathyHowe on

    I completely agree. There were two times in my life where I was down and out emotionally (although never diagnosed with depression). My house was a wreck. It was in times of feeling better, or WANTING DESPERATELY to feel better, that I would get into uber-housekeeping mode. I called it spiritual housekeeping. It was absolutely therapeutic to scrub my floors on my hands and knees with a toothbrush (literally).

  11. posted by Mariann on

    I personally disagree. Divorced, almost 60, my 2 bedroom apt. is a vast array of ‘clutter’ to some, but represent an outrageous, lifetime of special memories to me. I have so many diversified interests in life, my apt. is my heavenly haven to keep them all in view. I am never bored. I have lived in 3 countries and traveled through many others. It is reflected throughout my mounds of ‘clutter’. I am far happiers than most of my friends who ‘whine’ constantly and hate family, friends, job, etc. and reflect it daily. I am far too busy with ‘real’ living and ‘global’ exploration than to organize some minor things so fanatically. I can pick up some random item, picture, newsletter, etc. and a special occasion, person or other experience makes me smile and ‘giggle’ to ‘perk’ me up. Fun, cheap drugless ‘therapy’ on demand!!
    Cut down on your materialist ‘store-bought’ things and you won’t need to ‘waste’ time organizing and reorganizing so much.
    ‘Down-size’ your life. Quit buying. Have a yard-sale or donate things to charity. It’ll save you lots of money and housing space, too.

  12. posted by Amykate on

    I suspect that my uni housemates might have intentially annoyed me because they knew that my fail safe method of regaining my temper before I did something drastic like yell at someone was the clean the kitchen top to bottom… living with three blokes the occation total diffinfectant probiably was a good thing….

  13. posted by Jasi on

    @Kathy: Love that. Spiritual housekeeping.

  14. posted by allen on

    While, as someone who has dealt with depression, I appreciate the recognition of what this article is trying to say (aka, a messy life might be a warning sign), i really dislike the posts from some of the people here who have been very… well, it seems to be either mean spirited, or heartless.

    Why do those who are uncluttered-challenge not deserve love and companionship? Why would you even bring that up in the discussion of an article on depression?

  15. posted by Jane on

    I am so upset by my house at this point I am considering leaving my family to live in a clean uncluttered environment. My husband is a huge slob and pack rat, and after almost 20 years I just can’t take it anymore. I am raising one 8 year old grandchild, and for some odd reason she refuses to pick up after herself. She literally has clothes, shoes, toys strung from one end of the house to the other. It is causing me to be severely angry and depressed. I have tried helping my husband organize, taking WEEKS at a time. Within a month or 2 the space is right back where it was to start with. He has a 2 car garage full, no room to park. A basement (3 rooms) full, 2 empty rental properties with stuff in them, and he has been hoarding an add on sunroom that we have never put on a house for 13 years!!! It is stacked and stored under my house! I used to be obsessed with a spotless house, but I have gotten over that. I do not care about dust, or a made bed…but clutter and food and dishes in my living room disgust me. I do up all dishes before I go to work and tidy up. I work 2nd shift until this weekend, then go to 3rd. When I come home house again looks like a bomb went off. Any advice before I pack a few things and walk away?

  16. posted by Steve on

    Mariann, that is great that you live a depression-free, fulfilling life. Others, however, enter a positive feedback loop whereby their depression creates a very messy home, which creates more stress and more feelings of hopelessness for the sufferer. It begins to feed on itself.

    It’s strange that you seem to describe your home as cluttered, then not cluttered in the next sentence (you only collect little things, not “store bought crap”). Real clutter is debilitating.

    “Sentimental” attachment to items leads others to having a dysfunctional home. I myself take photos of most of the stuff I may want to look at later. Thankfully, most items do not elicit a tactile “awww” response from me, so photos will suffice. I prefer to keep moving forward and live in the present.

    A functional home (in which to live and raise a family) is important to most people’s well being and peace of mind.

  17. posted by T on

    I realize Mariann’s original comment was posted a year ago, but I’m confused as to what someone who professes to love their clutter (yet a breath later advocates downsizing possessions) is doing on a website called “Unclutterer” in the first place. But anyway…

    I tend to agree with the depression-clutter connection. The most chronically depressed people I know live in constant, debilitating disarray. I’m genetically predisposed to depression myself, and when my mood is down, the clutter builds. Cleaning and clearing my space makes me feel more in control of my world, which is empowering, and ultimately uplifting. Objects can also hold associations that let bad energy linger, and keep you emotionally tethered to outdated perceptions of yourself. I would love to help my friends declutter their worlds too, but I find people have to be ready for the help before they’ll accept it. Just starting somewhere small can help, though!

  18. posted by Courtney on

    I think for me it’s the opposite…the more depressed I am, the more organized my place is. I need that order to keep from going right off the edge! It’s also a way for asserting control on my surroundings when I’m losing control in my head.

    I can let my place get messy when I’m okay with how things are doing in my life. It’s like I’m projecting the need for order in my head onto the need for order in my apartment.

  19. posted by Lindsay Moon on

    I do so agree. I once looked at a therapist and said, “If I’m such a perfectionist, then why is my house a mess?” She only stared back. Too bad I didn’t have this site. It’s mail coming in and pieces of paper I mean to do something with (but what??) Some is my husband’s and kids’ who don’t particularly care that there are baseball hats stacked on the lovely “chinoiserie” box I bought to house “landing strip” clutter. And then I sound like the b*(&^ reminding everyone to pick up. I’m working on “ACC” (After Coffee Cleaning) to push me through … but that often peters out after all the main kitchen clean-up is done. Will keep on it!

  20. posted by John of Indiana on

    This is SO true.
    Now that I’m coming out of my most recent bout of Depression (runs on 10-year cycles) I actually told my friend “it looks like a F***in’ Garage Sale BOMB went off in there!”.
    So far, I’ve gotten the kitchen and bath shoveled out. The biggest problem is dealing with the BOXES full of “I’ll need TWO of these as soon as I throw out this one I’ve had stashed for 25 years” things…

    I had forgotten I have carpet in the bedroom, too….

  21. posted by Sandra on

    Depression is an illness of which clutter is often a symptom. It can be difficult for someone who’s truly clinically depressed to even get out of bed in the morning, let alone keep things spic ‘n’ span.

    As the clutter gets worse, it can exacerbate the depression by making the person feel they’re in a deep pit they can’t get out of. Depressed people will also often buy stuff in hopes it will make them feel better. It can turn into a very nasty downward spiral. Professional treatment of the depression is a first step. There are websites where one can do an initial self-diagnosis to see if it’s truly depression and not just unhappiness.

  22. posted by another depressed hoarder on

    “It is hard to feel good when your house or apartment looks like a bomb went off, your friends don’t call anymore, you’ve gotten fat and you look like hell.”

    Boy ain’t that the truth. When my cluttering became a problem I stopped having friends over because I’m too embarrassed by my mess. Personal neglect becomes a problem for depressed hoarders like myself and then it spreads out into our living space, and then our work space. It’s a nightmare. If you know of a co-worker who kind of dresses sloppy and looks out of it, have sympathy. I wish I were an A-type personality who had my act together 24/7.

    I think there’s a book out there called “Does this clutter make my butt look fat?” The gist being: lose the clutter, lose weight. Is it that simple?

  23. posted by Helly on

    Geez, I moved in with my now-husband 3 years ago into a “Fixer Upper” and have been living in a state of renovations for three years. I feel like crying everyday, but he does not really understand. I clean an area out – and so it becomes the best place to put the next load of crap because it is the only clear area in the house. He does not understand that I NEED organization and a clutter free living environment. I don’t have anyone over because I can’t – there is no where for them to sit….
    I feel like crying and do a lot. I am starting to feel like there is no way out of this mess. I wish I never moved into this house. It is like living in hell.

  24. posted by m yoma on

    WARNING DISCLAIMER___My opinions on this subject are strong against clean people and may be offensive–I don’t want a war I just want to bring light to the other side of this issue.Please remember this is only an opinion and I am not inflexible or rigid about my views.these views are based on years of experience.—————————–It is my opinion that an untidy home can symbolize or signify internal goings on and vice versa.What concerns me though is that if a person wishes to live in this manner it is often the critiques of the inspecting organizer “freaks” that give me the most feeling of anxiety and grief.I am an artist and proudly hide my mess from others to keep the nosy organizers out of my creative realm and are always relieved to see them leave..I bought a house with an attic just so I could leave my half eaten toast on a plate without some rotter to come and spoil my fun.I quite enjoy doing paintings of my messes and am only ashamed if others see it that have the cleanaholic mentality.I screen people for this trait before they are allowed in my home.So I decided why should I let others see my private mess.Its none of thier business.They are not my mother and its my house not theirs.Masterfull mess creator artist and privately proud.I put my plastic covered couch for guests that fail the screening to sit on since I have neat friends who think I am tidy.Of course there are days I wish i could be like the clean and neat perfectionists of the world but I know that i am just not of that ilk.Guess what they envy my artwork and they could organize the world but couldn’t write a poem without sentence structure.I hate structure.I am not a box.They work and live in boxes and keep everything in boxes—groser than my toast the inhumanity–the clinical sterility of hospital clean.When they walk down the beach they wipe away the footprints left behind.My creativity goes into other more meaningfull things.Einstien was messy.I quit trying to keep up with the neat folk because lawns front lawns I am not interested in.The neat people tend to bully the creative messy folk and imply we are mentally sick because we are not like them.I am human not a robot.Free from the opinions of others no!!!They will always shove thier self rightious perfectionistic views upon you.ACCEPT US FOR WHO WE ARE SO WE CAN ALSO LET YOU SEE US FOR ALL THAT WE CAN BE!!!!!!!THEN WE WOULD HAVE NO REASON FOR GRIEF!!!!!WE WOULD FEEL LOVED THEN MAYBE WE WOULD CLEAN UP ONCE IN A WHILE JUST TO SEE YOU NEAT PEOPLE SMILE>Shame on them for shaming us for who we are and trying to make us like them BULLIES

  25. posted by m yoma on

    One more thing this post is not in relation to the previous post–The poor person in that situation would likely be best to get out of that situation.I do not wish to shove my untidiness on others.Messy people should live with like minded.Either way we all deserve love messy or neat.The other suggestion to previous post is to split the house in half-you live on one side they on the other because they will never learn to be neat –its in the nature of some to be messy because its all relative.The queen of england may find some of the tidiest to be piggies.

  26. posted by Depressed or Multi-tasker on

    I have trouble finishing a project, therefore my house is always cluttered with unfinished projects. I don’t pick up after myself well unless there are other people in the house to consider and even then it’s not a great job. I always thought I had so many unfinished projects and that my house was so cluttered because I was bored but now I believe it is because I’m depressed most of the time. Maybe I don’t really know what I want in life and it is reflected in how my house looks. If my house is in order, I seem to find it to be an opportunity to start more projects. It feels like I need to fill the empty spaces in my house. I rarely have a clear path to walk in my house. Just writing this dowm makes me realize that I need therapy.

  27. posted by Frustrated Believer on

    It was so nice to hear this. I have been living through a very tough couple of years and the only thing that keeep me somewhat sane is if the house is “straight”…not always “clean”. My husband rolls his eyes and almost becomes beligerant when I start cleaning. Instead of seeing and awknowledging how it helps me he says he feels the need to avoid me when I am “in that mode”. I try to do things that keep him “balanced”, however it seems that he won’t pitch in to help me stay sane. Even if I don’t ask him to help, he somehow makes me feel guilty for doing housework. We both work although he has more flexible hours than I. Having a somewhat straight house seems to keep things in perspective and help me keep from falling into a deep depression. I am glad to hear that I am not alone and there there really is something to be said for making the effort!

  28. posted by lynn on

    I don’t know where to begin. I want to clean, but I can’t. I start cleaning and become overwhelmed and take a nap so I can escape the whole thing.

  29. posted by My Perspective on

    While I appreciate all of the valid points that have been made, it doesn’t sound like some of you truly understand how severe chronic depression can affect a person’s life.

    Some of you might call it “making excuses”. I’m being realistic.

    Of course I’m unhappy. Of course my surroundings are uncomfortably untidy. I hate living in a cluttered environment. However, there is very little that I can do about it.

    It isn’t because I don’t want to. It is because on most days I am extremely depressed and unhappy. I often feel unable to be productive.

    It is hurtful when more organized individuals adopt a judgmental attitude. If you are living with somebody who tends to clutter, the best way to handle it is by showing compassion. The person obviously has an emotional or psychological disorder. You have the right to live in an organized environment, they have the right to be understood and helped.

    When you label people with this problem as “pigs”, or insinuate that they are lazy slobs, what do you expect? Not everyone can simply hop up and start cleaning like there’s no tomorrow. I feel like I have absolutely NO control in my life and it shows in my surroundings.

    Shaming the person and acting holier-than-thou will not give them the incentive to become more organized. Instead, it creates additional tension in the environment. My stepfather has called me “pig” and other derogatory names more than I care to remember. My mother would shout and scream at me.

    I’ve always done the dishes and my share of chores no matter where I’ve lived, but my bedroom at my stepfather’s home is another matter. I’m engaged to an older man who is a type-A individual…he isn’t a clean freak, but he has the “things should ALWAYS be in their place” mindset.

    It is important not to lose sight of the fact that most people who clutter probably suffer from some type of depression. We don’t clutter because we’re trying to annoy you or drive you nuts. Some of us need serious therapy.

    Frustrated Believer, I don’t know what your situation is but I feel for you. It sounds like your husband is being a bit selfish and that isn’t fair. Both of you should be sharing the chores at home. He should respect the fact that housework is almost therapeutic to you. He shouldn’t make you feel bad.

    However, his belligerent attitude might come from an attitude on your part that you’re unaware of.

    To clarify, I know that I sometimes become a bit defensive when certain people bark orders at me to clean my room or organize things. I’m 25 years old. I realize that my clutter bothers some people, but that is why I have my own little space. They don’t have to look at it. It all depends on how you approach the situation. I’m not saying that you belittle your husband…it certainly doesn’t sound that way. It sounds like he is being inconsiderate of your feelings.

    All I’m saying is that when we live with other people who clutter for whatever reason, a little compassion goes a long way. My tendency to clutter started because of my traumatic childhood and teenage years. That was my way of dealing with life. Unfortunately, it worsened over the years.

  30. posted by tricia csaszar on

    I agree . my depression has gradually gotten worse over the past 2 weeks were I dont feel like cleaning or whatever I need to do all I do is cry , I dont feel like Im living Im just existing and dont enjoy life at all and think of endingf things but I am afraid to in reality I also try and force myself to snap out of it , try to do what I need to do but I still cry through it but then get a headache from crying so hard that I cant go on to do what I need to do but Im also ashamed of myself

  31. posted by stefanie on

    Clutter and depression. Yes, I can see that.
    Clutter may also be connected to people who want to keep others out of their space.
    But, for me, clutter means that I’m feeling sad, disappointed, worried.
    Life can be depressing. I know that mine is and has been for quite a while. Bullies, people with their own agenda, everyday rudeness, etc.
    It’s a struggle every day lately, and popping an anti-depressant (with all their unpleasant side effects) does not make the problems go away, does not scare away the bullies, etc.
    I’ve been trying to de-clutter for 6 weeks now. Slow progress.
    I know that things could be worse in my life, but each person has their own mountain to climb.

  32. posted by Carly on

    When I was depressed my room was a complete mess, but as I finally got up the motivation to clean it – it made me feel better. It certainly didn’t cure my depression, but having control over something (my environment) helped when I didn’t have control over my emotions. Now its important to me to have everything in my room at home and my dorm room to be neat, organized, and clean. A tidy home really does mean a tidy mind for me.

  33. posted by Debbie G on

    I am so glad I ran across this blog! I have been feeling anxious and depressed since I moved into a “big” house with my significant other who is a collector. Our big house isn’t feeling so big anymore. In fact it’s getting rather difficult to find a place for him to put his newer additions to the collections. I am a neat freak and I get anxious when I come home and the table is covered with tools, hats, papers, etc. For awhile I was putting masking tape on the tablecloth in the form of a square where I asked him to not put his things so I would have a place to eat. Of course he would put things there to irritate me. Since we’ve moved in here, I have inherited my mother’s collection, and my dad’s things because he’s been in a nursing home for the past couple of years which is depressing enough. Five years later I still can’t bring myself to go through mom’s papers, or dad’s belongings, so now I also have clutter and no time to get to it. I work full time, and visit dad often as I can, usually two or three times a week. He is about 40 miles away and my job is not too understanding about taking time off to get things done. Not to mention the clutter of medicare and insurance paperwork an ill family member will generate. At least now I understand why I am feeling so anxious when I’m in the house and am glad to go to work where I am to keep my work area neat and clean. My supervisors have commented on how nice everything looks when I work or they can tell by the looks of things when they get there in the morning if I didn’t work that night. Thanks to everyone who told their story so I can understand why I’m unhappy, and can work on changing things. Maybe he and I won’t have to go our seperate ways afterall.

  34. posted by Victoria on

    I grew up having to be tidy just to avoid my mother’s wrath. I married a very loving man, who grew up in sloth which was blamed on his mother’s mental illness. I’ve learned to be flexible about tidiness, cleanliness, clutter,etc. Yet I find I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to clean up after people who don’t clean, but seem to go out of their way to make excessive messes. So we live in a pretty filthy, cluttered home which used to bother me to the point of angry resentment. Now I keep quiet and do my own thing. And occasionally they complain about the dirt, etc and what a slob I am. Haha! They all went a way for a week and I had the flu so I stayed home. Even with the flu I managed to clean the house up enough to feel more comfortable in and it stayed that way. When they are around anything I do is immediately undone. An empty space is a convenient space to toss their stuff, rather then putting it away somewhere other then out in plain site. I have 2-3 years before the youngest is out of high school. I am hoping I survive this time. Living in clutter and mess affects me both physically and mentally. I would love to live on my own with just my pets. They are much easier to care for. The pets don’t try to place things on my bureau, like my hubby does, because there is an empty space and it would be much easier for him to find something of his on my bureau because it isn’t as cluttered as his bureau is. Yeah right. This was the one place I have been able to keep him from placing things of his. If I didn’t, my bureau would be as cluttered as every other place in the house. I feel like I have not quite one half of the room to call my own and he controls the rest of our bedroom as well as the rest of the house. But of course it is all messy because I don’t clean up or pick up after him. I do the bare minimum because there is no need to make the messes he makes. Plus if I clean up after him (toss thigs in the garbage) then he is mad because he can’t find things as if there is a place for most of the junk he keeps. This is what makes me feel crazy, uncomfortable, unfocused and aimless. This is not me, it is my reaction to the circumstances I live in. I’ve tried talking about it and all I face is their resentment that I expect more or better from them. They don’t have time, yet they can make excessive messes? They don’t complete chores. Sure you went to the dump, but how about completing the chore by returning the recycling bins to the basement. I do when I go to the dump. I complete the chore and not leave the bins near the front door for him to put away. I could go on and on. Basically I try not thing about it and try to survive moment to moment. But it all affects me negatively which affects “us” negatively, yet it’s all my fault for not being their shadow walker who cleans up as they mess. C’est la vie.

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