Anyone who has had roommates (or even lived with family members) knows that sharing a living space with someone can affect your mental health. Whether you’re being driven out of your mind by a roommate’s refusal to clean up after themselves, or isolating yourself in your bedroom because your roommate has guests over at all times, living with someone else is almost always an adjustment that involves compromise. And because sharing a living space is pretty intimate, it would make sense that your relationship with a roommate affects how you feel.
Ali Mattu, PhD, assistant professor at the Columbia University Medical Centre says that living with someone can change you in a lot of ways.
“Sometimes living with a roommate means you both move closer to similar types of values, and sometimes living with a roommate can clarify how you have different values, and it can strengthen a perspective you have,” he says.
For example, maybe you go into a roommate situation thinking you’re super chill about messes, but you end up living with someone who drives you up the wall, because they never clean their dishes — and then you realise that maybe you weren’t as carefree as you thought. That’s okay.
Aside from the day-to-day gripes you might have over whose turn it is to take out the trash, some people believe mental illnesses to be “contagious ” amongst roommates — but that’s not necessarily true. Someone else’s mood could impact yours, but it isn’t as if mental illnesses are like colds. Dr. Mattu says that if you have a great relationship with a roommate, that might actually help with any mental health issues. If someone is feeling down or has symptoms of depression, for example, having a roommate who encourages you to get out of bed or go out and eat might help keep your symptoms from getting worse.
“A roommate can notice changes in how you’re feeling and check in with you,” he says. “That’s a really important role for friends and family, just to notice the day-to-day differences and say, ‘Hey you don’t look yourself. Is everything ok?'”
Of course, it can also go the opposite way, where a particularly annoying roommate could put you in a worse mood and even make your mental health worse.
“Lets say you’re dealing with a lot at school or work — something that a lot of people look forward to is coming home and being in that safe space and being able to put your stuff down, change into something comfy and relax,” he says. “If coming home means, I have to deal with my roommate and this mess, or I have to have a tough convo about how I felt really disrespected by them, that introduces a lot of stress.”
All of that can kind of be a nightmare if you can’t really get out of a roommate situation you hate (if, say, it’s a college roommate and you can’t escape room assignments barring extenuating circumstances, or you signed a year’s lease with someone). But Dr. Mattu says that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, even if it’s sometimes deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
“Your roommate doesn’t have to be your best friend,” he says. “The thing you really want to aim for is mutual respect: respecting each others space, belongings, making sure you’ve talked about how you’re gonna care for the common space, the expectations for if you’re gonna have someone over, and so on.”
In other words, aim for respect first, and friendship second. It’s not that you shouldn’t be friends, but that the main thing you should have in common is knowing that the other person isn’t going to be flagrantly disrespectful of your space (at least, on purpose).