How to Help a Depressed Roommate

how to deal with roommate depression
(Source: Jessamyn West via Flickr Creative Commons)

If you suspect that your roommate may be depressed, here are some warning signs to look out for, and some sensitive ways for you to approach the issue and seek help if necessary.

Is My Roommate Depressed? Warning Signs to Look Out For

Depression can manifest in different ways for different people and can be easy to overlook. Keep an eye out for any significant changes in your roommate’s normal routines and behavior, including the following red flags for depression:

  • Changes in sleep patterns: Your normally spritely roommate seems to be sleeping more than usual, waking up late for work, or just appearing generally fatigued. On the other hand, your roommate may be unusually restless throughout the night, staying up late watching television rather than getting some much-needed shut-eye.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities: Your roommate never wants to go out anymore, and instead prefers to stay camped out on the couch all weekend. They avoid making plans with friends, and no longer seem interested in chatting with you when you get home from work. They may also be foregoing basic self-care routines, such as working out, showering, and doing their laundry.

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  • Changes in appetite: You notice that your roommate is either skipping meals or eating noticeably more food, possibly resulting in a sudden yet significant weight loss or gain.
  • Changes in mood: Your roommate is always on the verge of tears, yet can’t seem to pinpoint why. They often express feelings of low self-esteem, unnecessary guilt, or hopelessness about the future. They may also be increasingly anxious and irritable, snapping at you or getting worked up about minor issues.
  • Increase in physical complaints: Your roommate always seems to be suffering from a headache, stomach ache, or general malaise. You may notice them calling out sick for work more often than usual, or frequently complaining about aches and pains that have no apparent medical cause.
  • Increase in risky behavior: You notice that your roommate is partying harder than usual, binge drinking to the point of blacking out and putting themselves in dangerous situations. At home, your roommate seems to be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol more days than not.
  • Talking about death or suicide: You notice your roommate making off-handed comments about death such as, “I wish this would end” or “I just want to die.” You initially pass these off as exaggeration or sarcasm, but you begin to worry as these statements become more frequent.

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What You Can Do if You Think Your Roommate is Depressed

Obviously, any of these red flags can be a normal part of life, and many roommates become distant or moody with one another from time to time. However, if you notice these signs persisting more days than not for a period of two weeks or longer, it may be time to take action by using one of the following approaches:

Direct Approach. Depending on the type of relationship you have with your roommate, your first step should be to approach them directly and express genuine concern for their well-being. You may feel nervous about initiating the conversation, but it is better to be forthcoming and honest with your roommate, rather than waiting until the situation gets worse. Oftentimes, individuals suffering from depression don’t even realize that they are depressed until someone close to them expresses their concern. Here are some tips for how to facilitate the conversation in a sensitive manner:

  • Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements: Using open-ended “I” statements is an effective way to express your concern and offer support without putting your roommate on the defensive. For example, “I’ve noticed that you seem to be feeling down lately. I’m worried about you and I’m here for you if you want to talk.” Avoid using accusatory or guilt-inducing “you” statements such as: “What’s wrong with you?” “You’re not fun anymore.” “You used to always be up for anything but now you’re so aloof.”
  • Have empathy: It can be upsetting and frustrating when your roommate is depressed. On a social level, you might miss the fun and companionship that your roommate normally provides. On a practical level, your depressed roommate may have stopped contributing to household chores, or is keeping you up all night with their erratic sleep patterns. While all of these things can be difficult to live with, try to have empathy and avoid taking your roommate’s behavior personally. Turning against your roommate or expecting them to “snap out of it” will only make the situation worse and further alienate your roommate.
  • Offer resources: If your roommate is open and receptive to seeking help for their depression, it can be useful to have some mental health resources up your sleeve. If you don’t have any personal recommendations, Psychology Today is a great website that allows you to search for local therapists based on insurance plan, mental health concern, and treatment type. Many people feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they need help, so you can also assure your roommate that therapy is pretty much a rite of passage for any seasoned New Yorker.

Notify Friends and Family. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching your roommate directly, or don’t feel equipped to handle the issue on your own, consider reaching out to others who are close to your roommate, such as their best friend or significant other. As a roommate, you are on the front lines of your roommate’s depression on a daily basis, whereas other people in their life may be unaware of the extent of the problem. Depending on the severity of your roommate’s depression, you might also consider contacting your roommate’s parents or local family members to let them know what’s going on. In reaching out to others, however, try to avoid disclosing your roommate’s personal information to anyone in their professional network, such as bosses or coworkers, who your roommate may not feel comfortable sharing this with.

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Take Emergency Action. If you ever become seriously concerned about the safety of your roommate, or believe that your roommate is at imminent risk for suicide, do not hesitate to call 911. This may feel extreme, but it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Practice Self-Care. It can be emotionally draining to be a constant source of support for a roommate who is depressed. In caring for your roommate, don’t forget to care for yourself as well. Seek outside help when needed and allow yourself occasional distance from the apartment if you find that being there is bringing you down. Ultimately, you’ll be better able to support your roommate if you are in a good head space!