Roommates and Mental Health Illnesses: How To Make It Work?

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It’s three in the morning.

I need to be as quiet as the monsters under a 5-year-old’s bed…except the monster, this time is inside my head.

I can hear the rhythmic snores of my roommates. If they wake up now, it’s going to be catastrophic (or at least that is what my mind tells me). I can feel the screams trying to escape from within me. They are like popcorn kernels popping off a lid, just about making it, but then subsiding.

Having to shuffle through my drawers for my SOS medication is not helping.

“Why are you making so much noise right now?”, I hear my angry roommate hiss.

I mumble something in response. Rushing to my closet, I thanked my petite frame for fitting inside it like a puzzle piece. The anxiety attack is starting in 3…2…1….

I need to go home.

But unfortunately, this is my home..for now.

And my depression, just like my other roommates, hates me.

Finding your place in a college environment, especially a residential one, can be a difficult task.

One of the most important support systems you could find is a roommate. Think of Ross and Chandler from Friends, or Leonard and Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.

You want someone who can understand you, and love you for who you are, despite your quirks and weird habits.

At the start of every roommate relationship, you will wonder, “How open should I be?”

For someone with a mental health disorder, this question is so pressing that, if you have anxiety, this question in itself will exacerbate your symptoms.

Alia, a college student who was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, felt happy knowing that her roommates were empathetic individuals who often spoke about things like creating a safe space and being accepting of sensitive issues on social media.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Intense feelings of worry and stress.

Symptoms:

  • Trouble controlling thoughts due to constant overthinking and worrying
  • Feeling restless, which often manifests as twitching and trembling
  • Feeling tired all the time but unable to sleep
  • Hard time concentrating on any one person or task
  • Unexplained pains all over or specific parts of the body
  • Irritability
  • Sensory overload: Discomfort due to noise, smells, sights around you, which feel overwhelming and stressful

Little did she know that this empathy was based on fetishized perceptions of mental health disorders, or worse, problematic sit-com representations.

Her obsession with her worries was seen as being selfish. 

Restlessness over small things was considered childish.

Constant tiredness was perceived as laziness.

Trembling during arguments was dismissed as being oversensitive.

Her need for someone to calm her down was seen as an attention-seeking tactic.

In a world where mental health issues were at best, plot twists, and at worst, considered imaginary, she wasn’t at all surprised.

Tanya was a Psychology student rooming with people from the same major. While playing with the idea of telling them about her mental health disorder, she felt they would understand. Of course, they would be supportive..isn’t that what they were training to be? Wouldn’t they accept the diverse ways in which the human brain works?

Even though she decided not to tell them, partly because she herself could not figure the depths of her condition and partly because she felt it would lead to a “pity party”, her anxieties ebbed and flowed in tandem with instances of her roommates excluding her during meals and night outs.

They would have been supportive but at the cost of treating her like an outcast who needs pity, and not love and friendship.

The above two stories are similar, yet different.

They are painful to read, yet important to recognize.

While Indian sources of how rampant mental health conditions in colleges are, seem to be unreliable, studies done by US-based advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness states that “one in four young adults between the ages 18 to 24 has a diagnosable mental illness”.

18-24 being the conventional years of college life, it is a safe assumption to make that either you know someone or have roomed with someone with a mental illness. So what can you do?

Here are some tips:

5 things you can do if you are the one with the illness

1. Remember that you are not obligated to tell them anything about your mental health struggles unless you pose a danger to someone, but if you do, you will a) not have to hide in the cupboard at 3 am during a meltdown if they are accepting of you and your struggles and b) you will know if your roommates are the real deal. If you do decide to tell them, be as honest as you can be, and share as little or as much as you want.

2. Create and abide by an emotional consent policy: Unless it is completely out of your control, take their permission before unloading an anxiety-ridden rant or a flurry of worries on them. Your roommate’s mental health is as important as yours, and giving them the space to gauge their emotional capacity to handle your bad days will go a long way in your relationship.

3. Make a list! A few years ago, a checklist that a girlfriend made for her partner about what he can do to help her through an attack went viral. Consider making one for your roommate if you have realized that they can be trusted and are there for you. This is not just for you, but also for them so that they do not feel completely lost about when they want to help you through an attack.

4. If you are crammed in a small room, try to designate any tiny corner in your room as your safe space ; it can be the shower, or your bed with the curtains drawn around it, or the balcony. The point is, to have one spot that you can recede to if either you or your roommate needs space.

5. Leave. That’s right. Your mental health is your priority. If you have an illness, you do not have to make excuses for it or hide it. Treat it like a broken leg that everyone will rush to accommodate. If your roommates are using your illness as an excuse to create an uncomfortable space for you, you don’t have to “be nice” or “just live with it.” You deserve a safe space, and if it is not with your current roommate, it is with someone who will truly try to understand you and make you feel safe.

5 things you can do if you are living with someone with an illness

1. Recognize that some parts of their behaviour are symptoms of their illness, and they are not acting out because they are childish or selfish. They are trying, and that’s worth commending. Do not try to “tough love” the symptoms out of their system. That’s not how this works.

2. Try to read up on their illness and have open conversations about how you can help them. It is not necessary that your roommate will have an answer to the latter, but if you can, show them you are there for them by asking questions (if they are okay with that!) instead of just writing them off. The more you know, the easier it will be for you and your roommate to come up with an arrangement that is full of love, respect, and empathy for each other. Helping them with seemingly tiny tasks such as arranging the bed, sitting next to them in silence while both of you study, or just giving them space by stepping out of the room when they need to be alone, can go a LONG way.

3. NEVER share intimate details about their illness to anyone without their permission. Understand that they are trusting you with sensitive information about their lives, and are often cautious about who knows these details about them. Do not use their plight as gossip for your squad.

4. Do not pity them and reduce their entire being to their illness. Yes, their symptoms make up a huge part of their identity, but they are also way more than that. Try to be their friend first, rather than a caretaker. They will appreciate it and not feel like a burden.

5. Check-in with yourself often and make use of the emotional consent policy. At the end of the day, you need to take care of yourself too, especially when your emotional bandwidth is running low, and if your roommate’s presence is making life too chaotic despite doing the above, take some time to yourself to understand not just how you fit into their lives, but how they fit into yours.

Do you think we should include any other tip?

Do you resonate with Alia and Tanya!

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