How to help your roommate through tough times
By Julia Carnevale
Being a good roommate to someone who has anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, experiences with trauma, or any type of mental illness, big or small, clear or unclear, simply comes down to being considerate. That’s all. You really shouldn’t have to treat us any differently.
But, if you are unsure about how considerate you are, or what you should or shouldn’t do to help your roommate, I am offering some tips below. These are based on my individual experiences as a college student with Generalized Anxiety Disorder living in a dorm room. Everyone, of course, has unique experiences with mental health and needs different things, which is why my first tip would be to communicate with your roommate openly and kindly. Nonetheless, I think my advice is general enough to at the very least help you be more considerate, and thus a better roommate.
1) This should go without saying that everyone wants their dorm room to feel like a safe place. Anything that happens in the room probably should not leave the room, unless you are worried about your roommate hurting themselves. It’s not okay to complain about your roommate’s depression clutter to your friends at the caf. Instead, you should ask yourself, okay, how can I help them? (Sometimes this is hard to know, so if you don’t have a clear answer to the following questions, I recommend shooting your roommate a “you seem stressed, what can I do to help? text” or having a gentle in-person conversation with them). Would it be okay with them if I organized the things on their desk or would that bother them? Could I make their bed to make things seem less chaotic? When I was having one of the most stressful weeks last year, I went out to a friend’s birthday dinner and came back to my bed made, a self-care gift, a list of feel good movies to watch, and the kindest note on my bed. Just seeing the bed made me feel such a sense of relief. Just thinking back on someone doing that for me, makes me feel so valued and loved. I kept the note. Some of my favorite lines are: “love yourself, prioritize yourself, and never forget that you are not alone here at Fordham or anywhere else.” It was such a simple thing to do and yet so powerful.
2) It also might be a good idea to have positive decorations, or posters with inspirational sayings around the room to really sell your room as a safe place. However, sometimes this can get too overwhelming for someone, if everywhere you look is happy happy happy and they are struggling to feel this. But even simple pictures around the room, or leaving notes to each other on a white board, can remind people they are not so alone or unloved.
3) You should try to remember that someone’s dorm room is their only individual space in college. Having a panic attack in front of another person, for instance, is something that causes me even more anxiety. My roommate understands this and gives me space when I need it. I could shoot her a text, or walk in the room and she knows. One time, right before bed I got extremely anxious (on my 20th birthday), I couldn’t ask her to leave the room at 1 am, so I grabbed a box of tissues and my journal and headed to one of the lounges, trying to be discrete. She came into the lounge after giving me 5-10 minutes of alone time and brought me my water bottle. Then she sat there with me until I was ready to tell her what was going on and talk it out with her; that is one example of how to be a considerate roommate. A simple question you can ask yourself is, what would I want if I were really upset? Most of the time, just the thought of you wanting to improve our situation is enough to make us feel better and loved. I try to be considerate by spending a lot of time outside of my room, so that I can make sure my roommate feels the same sense of having her own time and space.
4) I think it’s important to be open about my mental health and my mood, and I find it helpful to my rooming situation when I am open and straightforward. But, some people are not able to talk about what is going on, which is valid. I mentioned in an earlier tip about respecting what people go through visibly, but you should also try to respect what people go through invisibly, although this can be challenging. If your roommate is a random roommate, it might take them a lot of time to advocate for what they need or want. It still takes a lot of courage for me to talk about what I want or need, and sometimes needs and wants change. I hope you are willing to accommodate someone at any time, and treat them with kindness and respect, when/if they do open up to you about their struggles. One question you can ask yourself is: if I were 10x more sensitive about things in the room (objects or vibes) than I am right now, how would I be feeling and what would I need from my roommate?
5) With room selection coming up, my final tip on being a good roommate is making sure that you’re being considerate to yourself too, and that you’re putting your mental health first. Maybe rooming with your best friend(s) or living on campus isn’t what’s best for you. Or maybe it is. It’s really hard to be considerate of someone else and their needs if you aren’t considerate to yourself and your needs. So, ask yourself what you need in order to be a good roommate… perhaps a safe place, a little bit of inspiration, some space, and respect.