This Student Cleaned Unlivable Homes & The Results Were Heartwarming

Sai Leigh - December 8, 2022
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Can’t They Just Pay for Cleaners?

Last year, about 10% of US households employed a cleaner or cleaning service. Cleaning services vary but can add up quickly, especially for those with active or large households. The average cost to have your home cleaned in the US is $160 per session. You can see how even if you scheduled this service twice a month, it’s a decent chunk of money for anyone to have to give up. Most people prioritize other items, services or utilities over cleaning.

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An Array of Disorders

But what exactly are the mental health disorders we’re talking about that can lead to an unclean home? Anxiety, PTSD, depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder name only a few. Major depressive disorder is currently the leading cause of disability for Americans aged 15-44. And that’s what we, and Brogan Ingram, are focused on here: how mental health disorders can be debilitating.

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Losing Control

The problem is, there isn’t one root cause for mental health struggles or messy homes. In fact, one can impact the other and vice versa. For example, having extreme anxiety or OCD can lead to losing control of your environment (meaning you end up with an unclean home). Alternatively, living in unclean surroundings—whether that’s out of your control or not—can cause depression and anxiety.

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Brogan’s Journey

Brogan has a following of 5 million on TikTok and 300,000 on Instagram. Followers tune in regularly to see what she’s up to and what kind of difference she’s made in the lives of people everywhere. Brogan’s journey into cleaning homes is an interesting one. It started out with her making the leap that messy homes lead to mental health problems and vice versa; plus, when you’re not feeling well mentally, the last thing you want to do is clean. It’s an endless cycle.

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Simple Mess, Complex Problems

Here’s an example of the kind of work Brogan does. In this image, you can see just how crowded and dirty someone’s house can get. When you’re dealing with mental illness, things can get out of control faster than you realize. Takeout containers, bottles, old food, papers and more are strewn about in piles. Brogan starts by clearing the house room by room of general trash – often a huge feat in itself – and then cleaning and organizing.

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Surroundings Matter

As one person responding to Brogan on Twitter said, “An orderly home is fundamental to a healthy mind.” Research has shown that there’s a noticeable correlation between cluttered and unclean homes and individuals feeling tired and depressed. In other words, these homes don’t feel “restful,” “calm,” or “restorative.” They feel like a pit of despair and negative feelings. Causing a cycle of mental illness to perpetuate until the cycle is broken.

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First Attempts to Help

Brogan initially began to post about the relationship between cortisol levels, a stress hormone, and unclean homes, which raise it. Her spotlight on this phenomenon drew messages from thousands of people living in “unlivable” homes who were asking her for help. Brogan’s response was to try and fundraise so that she could hire professional cleaners for these individuals. As we saw earlier, the average cost for one round of cleaning is $160—and these homes wouldn’t get clean with just one visit, that’s for sure.

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The Stress Hormone

Let’s take a deeper dive into cortisol and stress. Cortisol is a hormone released by your adrenal glands. It affects several different areas of your body, but also helps regulate how you respond to stress. Aside from regulating that stress response, cortisol helps control your metabolism, suppresses inflammation, regulates your blood pressure, and helps control your sleep cycle. This hormone has its hands in so many of your bodily functions, it’s easy to see how quickly things can go wrong when it rises just a little. Unfortunately, high levels of cortisol can lead to chronic stress.

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Fight or Flight: Escaping Stress

Chronic stress, also known as long-term stress, can be incredibly damaging to our bodies and minds. If left untreated and unresolved long enough, it can lead to traumatic stress. Cortisol is released by your body when you experience stress to try and control your response. Have you ever heard of the “fight or flight” response? If you’re especially stressed out, your body goes into this “fight or flight” mode. And Brogan Ingram’s approach to clean homes and healthy minds is directly related to that correlation.

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Defining Stress: An Everyday Issue

Experts define chronic stress as any situation that drains a person – their brains and bodies – over a long period of time. Symptoms of chronic stress include aches and pain, insomnia, low energy, cloudy thinking, increased alcohol or drug use, and emotional withdrawal. High-stress situations can be career changes, a dysfunctional marriage, or a deeply dissatisfying living situation. With that long of a list, it’s easy to see how anyone could fall into a high stress situation and lose control of other aspects of their life.

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Cyclical Trauma

When trapped in an unclean home, your body becomes more stressed because cortisol is being released at higher levels than usual. If the initial cause of your messy home was depression or another mental health condition, then you’re now trapped in a cycle. The messiness stresses you out, which clouds your thinking, makes you draw away from others who may want to help. Some people, unfortunately, might turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.

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When – And Where – Healing Happens

Just like you’d rest and heal in the appropriate surroundings of a hospital after a surgery, to recover from mental health, your surroundings are just as important. Therefore, if you’re trying to heal from a mental health crisis in a messy or unclean home, the road is much tougher. Those healing need a “fresh start” in clean surroundings, which is what Ingram tries to give her clients—a place of their own to straighten out their minds, emotions, and get a grip on their surroundings.

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A Voice on Social Media

Brogan, a psychology student, called out this correlation publicly on social media. Her solution for hiring cleaners didn’t work out well, though. She said in an interview: “I did that for a little bit until I realized these cleaners were actually rejecting the jobs, because they were too big, too hard, there was either bugs or rodents they would not go near.” Unfortunately, if these situations go on long enough, the job can easily become too hard for an average cleaner or cleaning company.

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The Cleaning Industry: Helpful or Unreachable?

The cleaning industry isn’t new, although it has previously been a luxury for most people. And for good reason; a good cleaning team costs a pretty penny, but can be life-changing. Some specialize in the area of deep cleaning and either handle issues like rodents and bugs themselves, or have connections in that area of expertise. Very few companies specialize in homes bad enough to be linked to “hoarding,” which mental health crises can look like if left untreated long enough. We can thank social media and reality TV for the bad connotation with hoarding, although people like Brogan Ingram are trying to shed a compassionate light on the issue.

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The Extremes of Uncleanliness

Hoarding is a type of disorder characterized by difficulty getting rid of possessions due to a “need” to save them. These items may or may not serve a purpose. Some forms of hoarding may look like collecting. For example, someone who saves every single newspaper in their living room for the last fifty years. However, hoarding can have serious consequences, ranging from destroying relationships to exacerbating health issues.

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Surprising Links to Trauma

Even the thought of cleaning can trigger trauma for some. Cleaning can connect to negative mental health in surprising ways. A study using fMRI scans showed that people with a tendency toward compulsive hoarding had activity in the same region of the brain responsible for processing damaging experiences. At the mere thought of throwing out even junk mail, for example, these individuals are re-experiencing trauma in their brains.

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Getting Her Hands Dirty (Literally)

Brogan began the next step in her journey by focusing on locals who needed help cleaning their homes. Sometimes it was as simple as cleaning out an overcrowded, dirty fridge. Other individuals had rodents nesting in their home. Brogan took it all in stride and learned as she went. She soon found out just how rewarding it could be, especially when families were involved. “I’ve seen children come home to clean houses, and it’s almost like they’ve never seen their house clean before.” For many families, including those with single parents, the situation can spiral quickly.

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How Bad It Gets

You can view Brogan’s latest volunteer cleaning jobs on her TikTok, @nottheworstcleaner. In reality, she’s far from the worst! Brogan makes this kind of cleaning look easy, but it’s not. Many of the homes she comes across are heartbreaking. In one recent post, she revealed that it was clear the homeowner was reusing toilet paper and, in some cases, items like sanitary pads. Of course no one in their right mind would want to live like this, but that’s the point Brogan tries to make with her content: these individuals are not in their “right minds” and struggle daily.

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It Could Happen to Anyone

In this same post, she wrote: “Today’s cleaning was really hard on my heart. Reach out to family, friends and neighbours because you never know who’s living like this behind closed doors.” And that’s true. While we like to think we know our friends and family best, in reality, many people keep their mental illnesses hidden. It’s important to recognize the signs of struggle and be willing to offer a compassionate helping hand, with no judgment.

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Signs and Symptoms

So how can you tell someone is having a hard time? The American Psychiatric Association says to keep an eye out for the following signs and symptoms: sleep or appetite changes, drop in functioning, increased sensitivity, unusual behavior, increased absenteeism, worsening performance, withdrawn and apathy. If you notice any of these symptoms in your friends, family members, neighbors, etc. – reach out to a mental health hotline for support.

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Selfless Care

What Brogan Ingram does is absolutely stunning. This psychology student has really taken the initiative to clean houses not just superficially, but in a way that truly gives those struggling a fresh start. In a recent video, Brogan wrote, “I will be back as many times as needed to continue deep cleaning every square inch and ensuring this woman can finally live comfortably without fear of being kicked out.” She regularly keeps these promises and works tirelessly to give her clients a new beginning.

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The Poverty Connection

That’s another part of the mental health crisis that needs to be taken into account. Many people suffering from mental health disorders live in poverty and are tenants, not homeowners. A spiral into depression could result in these individuals losing their only home and living out on the street, only worsening their living conditions. As a recent study stated, “Poverty is both a cause of mental health problems and a consequence.”

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Breaking the Cycle

In fact, poverty in childhood is an immediate cause for stress, and children will carry that stress into adulthood. As we’ve said before, this stress then turns into a vicious cycle of struggling to overcome mental health illnesses while living a functioning life. If poverty and mental health disorders continue into adulthood, they can lead to suicide. It can be extremely hard to break the cycle.

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Going Above and Beyond

Brogan also goes above and beyond when it comes to making a difference in these people’s lives. Recently, she noticed that one of her clients, an older man, had little to no clothing in his home. Brogan went to a thrift store and purchased sweaters and shirts for him, going so far as to bring the clothes to a laundromat to be professionally cleaned. There’s no doubt that having clean, comfortable clothing at hand made a huge difference in this man’s life.

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A Variety of Messiness

Let’s take a closer look at some of the situations Brogan deals with on the regular. To start with, there’s just general messiness. This usually takes the form of trash piled up in living areas, and Brogan sorts through everything to determine what needs to be thrown out and what can be salvaged and kept. As you can see in her videos, the variety of items in a home is fascinating and, sometimes, confusing.

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Finding Humor in Trauma

Obviously, she has to be careful, as some items might have sentimental value. But Brogan also brings humor to these posts, chronicling strange things she finds while cleaning. She’s come across completely unidentifiable objects as well as everyday items like multiple cellphones. Kids’ toys are often lost among the mountains of trash. While mental health is no joke, it can soften the blow for some and make the situations more relatable.

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Everything But the Kitchen Sink

She also deep cleans kitchens, dedicating entire videos to before-and-after shots. Deep cleaning involves not just getting rid of trash, but also eliminating bacteria, dust and germs. Brogan throws in tips about how to get your home extra clean, including the often-seen Scrub Daddy products that she uses at each free cleaning. Videos show the young woman scrubbing out utensil holders, refrigerators with caked on, moldy food and discolored counter tops.

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The Realities of Cleaning

The before-and-after photos make it look so easy. But keep in mind that even the smallest tasks can involve some deep, deep cleaning. This fridge, for example, took Brogan and a friend nine hours to clean. That in itself is a daunting task and should put things into perspective. What might seem like a quick and easy job (thanks to Brogan’s easy to consume social media) may actually be insurmountable to people living in those conditions.

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Hygiene Central

Unsurprisingly, bathroom videos get some of the most attention from her followers. It’s not hard to imagine just how bad bathrooms can get, since they’re the epicenter of hygiene. From crusty toilets to toilet paper that’s been reused over and over, Brogan keeps her cool while tidying it all up and getting it as close to clean as possible. These videos are both satisfying and disturbing, but keep in mind that they’re also embarrassing and stressful for those living in these conditions.

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Why She Does It

Brogan has managed to create a platform where she not only brings mental health problems and the importance of cleaning to light, but she’s totally transparent in her process and personal opinions. One of the most common questions Brogan gets is why she offers to clean houses for free. Obviously it’s a huge time suck for her and she has her own family to take care of. Most people can barely manage to clean their own homes, much less the homes of several other people a week-but Brogan finds a way to make it work.

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Healing Isn’t a Transaction

But she’s up front about not wanting people to see cleaning as a “transaction” and fear asking for help because they’ll be unable to afford it. This would only steer people away from seeking help and continue the cycle of uncleanliness and poor mental health. By offering her services for free, Brogan creates a safe place for people to choose to improve – with a little help. The more we stigmatize these situations, the less people will ask for the help they need and the longer these cycles will go on.

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Community Matters

Brogan has pointed out that “If you’re struggling to take care of yourself, you’re not going to take care of your environment, and it builds up fast.” One of the best things we can do is keep an eye on our friends, family and neighbors, and offer a helping hand or listening ear as needed. Sometimes all it takes is a safe space to feel overwhelmed for someone struggling to start on the right path. By building trust with others, we can create a community centered around healing instead of judgment.

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Calling Out Her Critics

In a recent post, Brogan encouraged her followers in this way: “If you’re someone leaving horrible negative comments and you’re so concerned, go help someone in your area! It could be your friend, family, loved one or neighbour struggling like this. Compassion goes a long way.” Brogan isn’t shy about calling out her critics and challenging them to pitch in the fight. It’s part of what makes her a truly generous and selfless person. Unfortunately, Brogan regularly defends herself against negative individuals on social media trying to shut down what she does for others.

Finding Control Again

One thing we haven’t gotten to yet is the effect cleaning has on your sense of control. Many people feel out of control in life, while others feel like they have it all in hand and figured out. But feeling a lack of control can be scary, and when your surroundings get overwhelming, this feeling can be amplified. Cleaning can give people a sense of ownership and control over their immediate environment. A study at UCONN revealed that in times of stress, many people turn to cleaning to help them feel in control.

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Staying Mindful

If you think that’s impressive, wait until you hear about the connection between cleaning and mindfulness. Surprising, right? You’ve probably heard of mindfulness in terms of being present and meditation, so what does cleaning have to do with it? A study published in the Mindfulness journ`al proved that washing dishes can be used as a meditative process. In the sample of 51 college students, those proven to be “mindful” dishwashers felt inspired, less nervous, and more focused while on task. Just another reason to find time to clean a few times a week.

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Motivational Numbers

Let’s take a quick look at some more cleaning stats, and maybe you’ll be motivated to clean up a mess you’ve been ignoring these past few days. For starters, 70% of dust is made up of dead skin flakes—that alone should be enough to make you want to get dusting and sweeping! Cleaning for 2 hours will burn 200 calories, so you don’t have to feel bad about skipping a workout to get your home clean. While it might seem okay to slack now and then, remember that the correlation between mental health and cleaning is a rabbit hole that is easily to fall down.

Finding Balance With Your Other Half

Half of couples living together fight about cleaning. Who is going to do it, when it’s going to get done, and who does what. Check out this article from NPR on how to fairly split up household chores. Quick tips include sitting down to write out a list of necessary chores, outlining the essentials, and noting expectations for when the chore(s) should be completed. Obviously, stress related to cleaning can (and does) negatively affect couples as well as individuals.

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A Moment for Reflection

Chances are (and we hope) you’re now thinking about your own mental health situation in relation to how often you clean, or how your surroundings affect your mood. If you’re interested in finding a cleaning service near you, use this cleaning cost calculator to find the average cost of cleaners in your area. If you decide to go this route instead of cleaning your house yourself, make sure you have a transparent conversation about what each service includes.

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Take Small Steps

Looking for easy ways to get started toward healing? It’s all about the small steps, not the big ones. Take a look around you at what can be done right now. Making your bed, for example, might seem useless or not like a big deal at all—but change doesn’t have to be big. Commit yourself to cleaning and/or organizing one small area (like a drawer, or closet) a day or week, and soon you’ll be creating the healthy habit of regular cleaning. One more item Brogan consistently recommends is a chore chart to keep everyone in the house on track.

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Ways You Can Help

Looking for ways to support those struggling with mental health? Check out this site to find out what you can offer, both emotionally and practically. It may be as simple as listening or as involved as attending appointments with professionals. Whatever path you choose to take, you can make a difference in the lives of others and help them begin to heal. Make sure to stay compassionate, non-judgmental and take a page from Brogan’s book!

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