Coping with your Roommate’s Depression

Awareness of mental health has become a pressing concern for the students at Ashoka University. There is a lot of talk on campus about what an individual should do when they are depressed, either from well-meaning friends, or those occasional sessions by the Centre for Well Being. And if nothing else, there are a lot of self-help resources available online for when your friend is depressed. But how do you cope with your roommate’s depression?

But first, let’s backtrack a bit: what is depression?

It's okay to ask for support

Depression is a common and serious medical mental illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. Depression causes feelings of sadness, disinterest, and emptiness. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home. It is important to remember that depression is not one-size-fits-all; it manifests itself differently in every individual.

*There are different kinds of mental illnesses that may require a different approach that hasn't been covered by this article. We are largely addressing anxiety and depression here.

Why is your roommate’s depression different from your close friend’s? It’s because you may or may not be best friends with your roommate, but you’re in closer proximity to them as you share a living space. This proximity can have many effects.

*As co-authors, we have had different experiences regarding this subject; the next few paragraphs have been written alternatively by us, drawing on our personal experiences

A: Difference between personality and mental health issues

It’s easy to correlate personality with mental health issues—something the media quite often does—but it is completely untrue. My roommate is quite social, productive, humorous, socially sensitive, optimistic and empathetic. She isn’t pessimistic, mellow or introverted like most people assume people with mental health illnesses are. Seeing my active, passionate, extroverted roommate go through a low phase really opened my eyes; her vulnerability made me respect her more, rather than question her personality. The most important takeaway, then, is that your intelligence or personality has nothing to do with your propensity to develop mental health issues.

There but still not there

S: The room, roommates, and mental health

The strangest part about living with someone else is how their behaviour and personality will influence you. Based on personal experience, if they seem to be responsible and generally have their life sorted, chances are that it may bring a positive change in your behaviour as well. If they have any quirky or funny habits of their own, you might unconsciously pick them up too (like stacking your clothes at the other end of the bed after you collect the laundry). However, if they are dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, they are equally likely to affect you, especially if you do not already have certain coping mechanisms to help you out.

On one hand, you want to help your roommate with their mental health conditions, because you know that they most certainly don’t want to be this way and you care about them so much. On the other hand, you know that it is affecting you negatively. Your room may be filled with tension, or with nothing at all. The empty silences become more and more prominent, and the energy of the room changes, and not in a good way. You can often feel issues almost as though they are your own, and it’s hard to escape. You may need some time of your own to recover, but don’t know where to go, especially if you and/or your roommate like to stay in your room often. Our rooms on Ashoka University’s seemingly small campus can often feel like our only truly private space, and it’s our go-to when we need to take a breather. If you already have, or have had, a mental health problem of your own, the situation only gets worse, because it may amplify what you’re dealing with already, or lead you to relapse into a previous state. It most certainly can be a trigger.

A: Roommate taking a semester off

Since we have the “luxury”, it’s also rather common for Ashokans to take a semester off to give themselves space to deal with their problems. My roommate recently broke it to me that she’s taking a semester off to work through her issues with a therapist. This initially left me feeling anxious and afraid, especially because my roommate has at times been my sole source of human contact (and good humor) on campus. I was afraid of loneliness. However, I realized that I had to let her do what is best for her own health and happiness. I helped her pack, find good doctors in the city she was going to, and plan other logistics. It was tough, but I had to not be selfish, and wish her the best.  

Thankfully, ever since she’s gone, I’ve been focusing on the positive aspects of living alone. I finally had privacy, after two years of sharing a room, which feels great. Having two beds means that I have ample space. I can control the temperature according to my comfort, pray, study without distractions and be naked whenever I want to; it’s not all bad.

S: Burnout and The Guilt Factor

Helping and supporting people when they are dealing with mental illness can be exhausting; it takes a lot of time, energy, and patience. The kind of toll it takes can, as mentioned before, lead to an aggravation of your own issues and maybe even a state of burnout. Your own needs can sometimes get compromised; if you’re staying up late to help your roommate fall asleep, but you have an exam to study for as well, juggling situations like this can leave you drained of all physical, mental, and emotional energy.

Those of us who are empathetic, or generally more predisposed to put others before ourselves, would feel guilty of ‘abandoning’ our roommate when they’re having an episode, even if our own mental health is in a dangerous state. Not dropping everything the second you get the call or message for help can feel like you’ve committed some great crime, even if it is a situation you are not equipped to handle.

Having been very close to someone who suffered from severe panic attacks, I knew that just being in close proximity them could lead to an anxiety attack of my own. While I wanted to help, there was absolutely nothing I could do. The amount of guilt I felt just for taking a step backwards was enormous. It took me a long time, and conversations with about half a dozen people, to understand that I was not being selfish when I was stepping back for a while.

It is okay to put your own mental health first; in fact, it’s extremely important. There is no way you can take care of someone else when you’re not up to the task yourself. Take some time off to recover, and if you feel as though it is getting too much, it is a good idea to ask for help. Don’t feel like you need to do this alone; work with your roommate’s support system, or with your friends.

A: The opposite

My roommate was quite the opposite: she actually hardly ever broke down in the room or around me, and was largely functional. It may not always be the case that you have to be your roommate’s support system because some people are embarrassed to ask for help, and might suffer in a way that it isn’t always visible. The best thing you can do is to create an open environment of support so that your roommate feels comfortable and can be themselves around you. But remember that you are not entitled to information about your roommate’s private life, and they don’t owe you any information they don’t want to share.

Since this article addresses coping with mental health issues with your roommate, building a positive environment in the room may be beneficial for the long-term well being of both of you. Not only can decorating your room make it feel less impersonal and more like home, it is a well-known fact that your surroundings can also affect your moods. Of course, you can’t stop taking your medication because you got a new piece of art, but little changes can make a difference over a long period of time. These tips can be used for well-being independent of mental health illnesses:

1. Art: Sticking posters or artwork on your room’s walls can be a great way create a nice vibe.

2. Incense: Incense can be quite therapeutic. It is also an ancient technique used for creating a serene and relaxing environment.

3. Plants: Since we are not allowed to have pets on campus, plants are a great way to keep close a connection with nature. There are often plant sales happening on campus, like TEDx’s during the Diwali Haat. Plants can help add colour to your room and create a positive environment.

4. Positive messages: One could write motivational and inspirational quotes, affirmations, gratitude posts and stick them on their bulletin board, or write with markers on the white board.

 

5. Music: Music can be a great relaxant, and can play in the background when either you or your roommate is in the room. Use what makes you comfortable-- ambient sounds, yoga music or instrumentals are only some suggestions.

6. Cleanliness: Last but not the least, this obvious and yet powerful technique can help make long-term impacts on the vibe of the room. Decluttering your space helps declutter your mind.

 

It is not your responsibility to look after someone else, and if you feel out of it, it’s natural and okay. What you can do is be there for your roommate, and create a safe and welcoming environment in your shared space. It’s a good idea to remain in touch with your RA and, if your roommate agrees, their parents/guardians as well, in case things ever get out of hand.

However, if your roommate is suffering, it is important to remember that the overall situation is not about you. Even so, you should take certain steps to ensure your physical, emotional, and mental well-being before you can help your roommate. Once you have taken care of yourself, it becomes easier to help someone else out, especially if you are living with them and are in close proximity to them for most of your time. Cultivate a support system of friends and family and healthy habits. You should not feel guilty for taking care of yourself. As they announce in flights, put on your oxygen mask first before helping anyone besides yourself.

If you ever need to talk to someone about your own mental health, please reach out to the Centre for Well Being. You can book an appointment on well.being@ashoka.edu.in or keep your eye out for their helpline availability.

Edited by Devashree Somani

 

 

About The Author

Anupriya is a third year undergraduate majoring in Psychology and Political Science at Ashoka University. She's been a closet writer in genres like spirituality, self help, ideology, sex, dating, lifestyle, travel etc. since a few years, and is working on coming out of the closet and expressing her ideas fearlessly. She loves nature, cooking, exploring various genres of music, dancing, adventure and meeting new people.

Sabah is a third-year undergraduate at Ashoka University, majoring in English and Journalism. She is passionate about writing, going by the name cha_O_s on the writing site Wattpad, and enjoys creating stories in the genres of fantasy, romance, slice of life, teen fiction, and sometimes fanfiction. She is also keen on journalistic writing, especially in the fields of sports and culture.