Messy Room? Depression May Be the Root Cause

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Messy teens are an adolescent stereotype. Refusing to keep their room neat is often a way for teens to claim their space and declare independence from their parents. However, a messy teen bedroom can also be a symptom of a mental health disorder. In some cases, when a teenager has a messy room, depression may be the underlying issue.

One out of every five adolescents suffers from depression. And depression brings with it a wide range of symptoms.

What’s the messy room–depression link? Here’s how the symptoms of depression can lead to teen messiness.

  • Exhaustion and constant fatigue are red flags of depression. These symptoms leave teens with no energy or motivation to clean their rooms.
  • Depressed teens often avoid social situations. That means they’re spending more time in their rooms, leading to more mess.
  • A sense of despair, sadness, and hopelessness often comes with depression. As a result, teens may feel that there’s no reason to expend effort to keep their personal space neat and organized.
  • The physical symptoms of depression include unexplained aches and pains, headaches, and stomach problems. Teens suffering from these issues are unlikely to prioritize room cleaning.
  • Having a hard time concentrating is another symptom of depression. This lack of focus can make it difficult for an adolescent to stay on task and get their room cleaned.
  • Feelings of failure and self-criticism typically accompany depression. Hence, teens might feel that they don’t deserve to have a clean, organized room. Living in a messy space might be a subconscious way of punishing themselves.
  • Binge eating and other disrupted eating habits often accompany depression. If teens are holed up in their rooms, snacking late at night or throughout the day, messiness is unavoidable.

Mess and Stress: How Clutter Affects the Brain and Nervous System 

The messy room–depression cycle goes both ways. Hence, not only does depression result in teen messiness, a messy room can create stress and other negative emotions.

Studies have shown that clutter produces anxiety and can make people feel depressed. One study of mothers living in cluttered homes found that they had higher-than-average levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Thus, living in a messy room means that a teenager’s nervous system is always in a state of low-grade fight-or-flight.

Research using fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has found that disorganization and clutter have a negative impact on the way our brains work. Moreover, messiness also influences our emotions, behavior, relationships, and even our eating habits. Research shows that we’re more likely to eat junk food when we live in a chaotic environment.

As a result, clearing clutter from our environment helps us focus better, process information more efficiently, and increase our productivity. In addition, tidying up helps us feel less irritable and distracted, studies show. Hence, the act of cleaning can help reverse a bad mood.

Newport Academy Restoring Families Resources: Newport Academy Well-being Resources: Japanese art of tidying

The Japanese Art of Tidying Up Addresses an American Epidemic of Clutter

Unfortunately, most Americans are weighed down by clutter and the stress it creates. For their book Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, a team of researchers visited the homes of 32 typical middle-class families in Los Angeles. And they found that most had far more possessions than they needed or used. In the first house they went to, researchers counted more than 2,000 items in just the first three rooms.

The author and television personality Marie Kondo has an approach to clearing clutter that she calls the KonMari method. Here’s how she directs people to decide what to get rid of: Pick up an item and ask yourself, Does it spark joy? If the answer is yes, keep it. If no, thank it for serving you, and send it on its way to the dump or a donation center.

Since Marie Kondo’s reality show premiered on Netflix in January 2019, more Americans have been inspired to start clearing clutter in their homes.

Clean vs. Messy Room, Depression vs. Well-Being

How to get your teenager to clean their room is an age-old dilemma for parents. But as we’ve learned, helping teens keep their rooms clean can support their well-being and mental health. So it’s worth the effort to help teens dig out of the old pizza crusts, wet towels, and piles of tossed-off clothing.

Here are five ways to help teens clean up and feel better:

  1. Make cleaning a family project. The whole family can help each other clean, one room at a time. Or each person can clean their own room, and then meet in the shared spaces of the home to continue the cleaning project together.
  2. Clean to music. Each family member can contribute favorite songs to create a playlist that will serve as the soundtrack for tidying up. No one’s allowed to stop cleaning until the music stops!
  3. Take it one step at a time. Encourage teens to set aside 10 minutes daily to clear out one area of their room. It might take longer before the mess is gone, but the process helps to build a regular habit of tidying up.
  4. Negotiate and collaborate. Even if a messy room is really out of hand, an adolescent might feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. Make a plan and offer to help. Start by determining what needs to be done and who will do what. For example, if your teen is willing to gather up dirty clothes and bring them to the laundry room, a parent might agree to do the wash.
  5. Inspire cleaning with some new additions. Incentivize cleaning by letting teens choose a few new items for their room once everything’s off the floor and bed. Adding a comfy chair, cool posters, or a bunch of colorful pillows might give teens more motivation to keep their space clear.

In conclusion, a messy room, depression, and teen challenges often go together. If teen messiness appears to be the result of hopelessness, lack of motivation, and/or social isolation, it’s time for a teen depression screening.



J Neurosci. 2011 Jan 12;31(2):587-97.

 Psychol Sci. 2013 Sep;24(9):1860–7.  

Environment and Behavior. 2016 Feb;49(2).

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010 Jan;36(1):71–81.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Aug; 69(8): 832–841.