Living with a roommate always involves compromise. However, sharing a home with someone with a mental illness requires more empathy, flexibility and understanding.
Please don’t let that dissuade you, however. Many people with mental illnesses approach conflict more maturely than those who don’t have the benefit of a therapeutic team to coach them on appropriate strategies. They understand the necessity of setting proper boundaries and respecting those of others.
What can you do to make cohabitation happy and successful for you both? Here are five tips for living with a roommate who has a mental illness.
1. Be Honest While Screening
Are you the energetic sort who’s always on the go, even spending evenings-in sharing your couch with a posse of pals? Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that — being an extrovert has many perks.
However, you should be upfront about your lifestyle when interviewing potential roommates. It’s unfair to advertise yourself as “quiet and reserved.” You could attract someone more introverted and those differences in social energy levels could result in conflict. People with mental illnesses deserve a serene haven if that’s what they need to heal. Maybe that seemingly perfect roomie won’t mind the disruption — but give them the honest information they need to make that decision.
2. Establish Ground Rules
Do you expect your roommate to stay out of your bedroom and bathroom at all times? Or are you okay with them popping in to borrow toothpaste if they run out? Establishing ground rules for situations like these from move-in day is the best way to avoid future conflicts.
It’s wise to pick a quiet, neutral time to talk. You might even want to set these rules in writing — it all depends on your relationship. However, you should make it clear that you want things to be fair for both of you, and you want to be upfront about the following items:
- Shared versus private space: Is your room off-limits under any circumstances? Does a closed door mean “do not disturb?” What about dividing up fridge and pantry space?
- When bills are due: Will you split everything 50/50? Will each of you take certain bills? You both need to know what you owe and when.
- Quiet time rules: Are there certain hours you need it to be reasonably quiet to sleep or work? Do you prefer no visitors after 10 p.m.?
- Outside guests: Roommate conflicts sometimes erupt when one party gets a romantic interest who essentially moves in rent-free. What will you do if one of you gets in a relationship? Discuss this before it happens.
- Keeping clean: People have different tolerances when it comes to cleaning. Discuss things like how long it’s acceptable to leave dishes in the sink. Who’s responsible for trash and recycling? Vacuuming? You might break down a chores list, with each of you taking certain tasks.
3. Discuss Your Boundaries
Besides the rules for sharing the property, you should also be clear about your personal boundaries. Some people expect their roommate to become their best friend and bosom buddy, while others are happier operating like two passing ships in the night.
Let your roommate know, firmly but politely, what information you are and aren’t comfortable sharing. For example, it’s natural for someone you live with to ask what’s wrong if you look upset. Do you want your roommate doling out relationship or career tips, or would you prefer to keep things more superficial? It’s okay to say, “I’m not comfortable sharing that information,” and leave it at that.
However, you’ll probably enjoy a smoother relationship if you make some attempts at friendship. Why not cook a meal together once a week or take a fitness class to get to know each other better? You might find that you have a new BFF after all if you give it a chance.
4. Exercise Empathy
You come home excited to share the news of your big promotion, only to find your roommate’s bedroom door closed — the “do not disturb” signal — again. Worse, their reaction is less than enthusiastic when they finally emerge. You’re sure they’re having a depressive episode, but couldn’t they muster a little enthusiasm for your achievement?
Please don’t take your roommate’s behavior personally — exercise empathy instead. You wouldn’t expect someone with a broken leg to run a marathon. It’s unfair to demand that someone with mental illness mask their symptoms for your convenience. Accept their behavior with a shrug, mindfully remembering that it has nothing to do with you.
Your job isn’t to fix your roommate with a mental illness. If their behavior threatens your safety, please take appropriate measures, including breaking the lease, asking them to leave or contacting the authorities.
Otherwise, offer an empathetic shoulder but don’t take over duties like asking if they’ve taken their medication on time or waking them up when they’re capable of setting an alarm. This advice goes double if you’re a chronic “helper.” Some people with mental illnesses struggle with codependency issues and fears of abandonment — do you really want the responsibility of acting as a replacement therapist and caregiver? It isn’t healthy for either of you and can lead to a disastrous blow-up.
5. Have a Plan B
Finally, even with mentally healthy roommates, things don’t always work out. Some people simply don’t cohabitate well. It’s not a slight on either party; they simply have irreconcilable differences.
Therefore, consider having a plan B when taking on any roommate, not only one with a mental illness. Where will you go, and what will you do if things turn sour? It’s horrific to feel trapped in your living situation — think carefully before sharing house and home with another simply because you can’t afford your bills independently.
Can you live with your family temporarily if you have a disagreement? Can you afford your unit over the short term if you have to find someone else? You don’t want an eviction on your record so ensure you have a feasible alternative.
Living With a Roommate with a Mental Illness
Living with a roommate involves compromise. You might need more compassion with one who is mentally ill — but you could also find cohabiting with an individual who understands boundaries refreshing.
Follow the tips above for living with a roommate who has a mental illness. With a little empathy and a lot of clear communication, you could save money and enjoy sharing your home with another.