Three Ways to Tell If Your Roommate Is Depressed

September 24th 2016

An uncertain, or even scary, entry into college life is natural for most people. Adjusting to a new environment takes time, and most students are experiencing an utterly foreign degree of personal choice.

But for many students entering college can also mean experiencing mental health issues — adjusting to the college environment can worsen depression, or bring out previously unseen mental distress. As the Mayo Clinic advises, "College students face challenges, pressures and anxieties that can cause them to feel overwhelmed. They might be living on their own for the first time and feeling homesick. They're adapting to new schedules and workloads, adjusting to life with roommates, and figuring out how to belong… Dealing with these changes during the transition from adolescence to adulthood can trigger or unmask depression during college in some young adults."

Beyond adjusting to classes and a new location, college students are often living with new people: their roommates. At best a great roommate can open up your horizons as fruitfully as a great class: the social experience of the university is a crucial component of one’s growth and education. A roommate may also just be a person you share your space with, if nothing else. Either way, it's as important to adjust and communicate over minor quirks, as it is if you notice new possibly mental health-related habits.

Beyond having a naturally unsteady time getting used to the social and intellectual demands of college life, clinical depression can destroy a person’s life if left untreated. Listening to your roommate is essential to any successful relationship, and careful, active listening can save a depressed person’s life.

Here are tips to help identify and assist a roommate, who may be suffering from depression:

1. Take notice: Crying spells? Use drugs or alcohol to the exclusion of daily life? Excess sleep?

Noticing the signs of depression in someone close to you can go a long way toward helping them. Is your roommate or friend going to class? Are they spending all their time in the library and still failing exams? College has been the progenitor of many impressive substance abuse disorders: have they been drinking or doing drugs to the exclusion of daily life?

Observations about unusual behavior, such as crying spells, excessive sleep or insomnia can be indicative of depression. Indeed, for a more quantitative measurement, the PHQ-9 self-assessment is a standard way of looking at potentially depressed people’s symptoms over time.

2. Active listening: "Go on without me."

When you hear “Go on without me; I’m not in the mood,” what they might really mean is something closer to “The world looks dark and uninviting, and what brings you joy and excitement just reminds me of how dead I feel inside.”

Actively listening is a way of engaging with someone that allows for mutual understanding. If your roommate hasn’t showered in four months, and they only go to the library for snacks from the cafe, being able to relate to them in a respectful way can get their attention. When someone looks to have given up on the better part of their self image, it's important to earn their trust.

3. Get to know your roommate before you move in together: Have they given up on their interests?

Having trouble adjusting to college life can easily morph into depression. Leaving home and being under new academic and social pressures can be intensely stressful. If you were able, for example, to get in touch with your roommate before move-in day, they probably expressed all sorts of super-achieving high school senior interests. Compare the person you talked to during the summer (albeit a limited, virtual view) to the person who sleeps a few feet away from you now. Maybe you can see their love of ska and the novels of Bret Easton Ellis in the stuff they haul out of their mom’s Volvo, but a few weeks down the line their books remain untouched, and they can’t even rouse themselves to see a Skatalites cover band performing at the student union.

What to do if you think your roommate is depressed.

The first step if you suspect that someone is depressed or suicidal is to gently refer them to the student health center. Again, active listening and mutual understanding can reinforce the purity of your motives. Let them know that it's safe to talk to you about anything, and that you're there for them if they need to talk. If the person expresses suicidal ideation or homicidal ideation, you need to get stronger in your persuasion to get them help. Use your gut; if you have reason to believe they may be a danger to themselves or others, you must try to refer them to counseling.

Part of the maturity that successful adjustment to adult, collegiate life brings is a feeling of duty toward others. Recognizing the pain of others, and taking positive steps to help them, is a necessary step in broadening one’s human experience. When the unmistakable signs of depression begin to manifest themselves in someone you’re close to, it’s your responsibility to let them know that you won't let go even as they try to pull away.

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