What Life In A House Share Is Like When You Have Mental Health Issues

Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
As anyone who’s ever done it will tell you, house-sharing isn’t always one big extended episode of Friends. Living with someone whose tidiness threshold or partying stamina is way mismatched with yours is annoying enough, but mild irritations can be amplified to devastating proportions when mental health issues are added into the mix.
One in four people will suffer mental health problems at some point in their life, and studies have shown that young people are particularly susceptible. ONS data on the lifestyles of young people in the UK show that one in five 16-24-year-olds reported mental ill health in 2014, and that 90% of 20-24-year-olds were in rented accommodation. Looking at those statistics side by side, the likelihood of having to battle through a mental health issue in close proximity to roommates seems pretty high. Plenty of advice is available on how to support a family member or partner with mental health issues, but what if the person in the next room is neither?
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“I have depression and anxiety, and I’m currently living in a student house with people I didn’t know before,” says Jess, a 22-year-old master's student living in Birmingham. “It’s a mixed blessing that I didn’t know them because there’s less pressure than being around friends. Sometimes with friends, you don’t want to let them down by not being social, but when you don’t really know them it’s easier to fade into the background and stay in your room all the time.”
Jess lived with close friends in her old house but found their attempts to be supportive could be stifling. “I’d feel resentful because I knew that they were going to try and get me out of bed and get me to talk and go places with them,” she says. “It depends what mood I’m in; sometimes it can be really helpful if someone says, ‘Why don’t we go and get some food’ because they know I haven’t eaten since yesterday, but at other times that’s the worst thing they can do because I don’t want to talk to anyone and I’ll be awful if you try and spend time with me.”
Choosing how much or how little to divulge about a mental health issue is a personal decision; while Jess felt able to discuss her depression with one of her housemates, who’d also experienced mental health issues, Francesca, who didn’t want to reveal her age or location, felt the opposite. “I lived with others at university and throughout my 20s, and suffered from anorexia,” she says. “I’ve never confided [in my housemates] but it turns out they’ve always known. I’m incredibly self-conscious about eating in front of others, as I often feel judged, particularly when really trying to follow recovery meal plans.”
One thing Jess and Francesca do agree on is that living with strangers or acquaintances was preferable to close friends. “I've never lived with close friends for fear of food issues becoming a barrier,” says Francesca, while Jess says she prefers the idea of living with “people I don’t really know, but are a similar age and life situation” to living alone or with family: “I’d be terrible if I lived alone, I don’t think I’d ever leave the house!”

She’d say, ‘you’re crazy, you’ve got issues’. She’d bring parties back a lot to avoid talking and avoid the situation.

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“Revealing a mental health issue can feel risky because people fear the reaction, so they feel pressure to hide it or pretend everything’s fine,” says counsellor Katy Georgiou. “Even if they do speak up, there’s the question of when and how. If they mention it too soon they might scupper accommodation opportunities that could have become friendships, but say it too late and they might risk the housemates feeling somehow duped. You might feel like you don’t want to burden your housemates, but equally feel like not talking about it makes the issue worse. Or you might resent having to reveal your private business but feel like you have no choice in the matter.”
Rebecca, 26, an office worker from High Wycombe, found that explaining her condition – depression and borderline personality disorder – did improve her living situation to begin with. “My mental health wasn’t that bad [when I first moved in with my ex-housemate] but it deteriorated and I did open up to her about it,” she says. “At first she was very open which was useful and it made the living situation easier. Once you’ve explained the medical facts behind it, it becomes a bit less scary, so I did tell her about the condition and she was a lot more relaxed after that. She knew what to do, even if it was just to call an emergency contact like my mum, or the social worker I had at the time.”
Unfortunately, Rebecca’s roommate struggled to support her when her mental health worsened. “I couldn’t really hide it,” she remembers. “It leaked through into daily life. That’s when I’d say, stigma-wise, I got the judgement. She’d say, ‘You’re crazy, you’ve got issues’. It would be awkward, it was a small place and her boyfriend was round all the time. She’d cut off conversations or bring parties back a lot to avoid talking and avoid the situation.”
“There’s still a lot of misinformation, prejudice and fear about mental health,” says Georgiou. But rather than being simply insensitive, those seemingly inappropriate reactions might be a product of distress. “It can be really upsetting for roommates to witness another person suffering,” she continues. “It’s good for housemates to have at least a basic understanding of different mental health issues, not just so they can offer the right kind of support, but also so they’re emotionally protected and don’t get shocked if they see something they don’t understand, like self-harming or binge-purging.”

It was becoming a bottle of wine every night, then two, then two bottles of wine and some cocaine, some valium, and I soon realised that this wasn’t typical student party behaviour, it was taking over him.

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Eddie*, 25, who lives in Surrey and works in the music industry, knows this all too well. “Both my housemates were students, so it was difficult to tell at first if they were just having fun at events or if my friend was becoming reliant on alcohol,” he says. “After a few weeks [of living together], it wasn’t just a few beers every night – it was becoming a bottle of wine every night, then two, then two bottles of wine and some cocaine, some valium, and I soon realised that this wasn’t typical student party behaviour, it was taking over him.”
Eddie tried to help, but struggled with his housemate’s fluctuating moods. “Every time I tried to offer advice or intervene there’d be a whole layer of bravado and confidence, like, ‘Mate, it’s very sweet that you’re looking out for me, but I’m fine. I can handle myself’. Then a few bottles of wine down the line, there would be tears: ‘I’ve let my parents down, my sister down, my friends down, what am I doing?’ And repeat the next day. It’s difficult to deal with someone who for half the day is in denial and the other half is wrapped in self-loathing.”
Eddie’s own mental health suffered as a result, and he admits that he felt “selfish” acknowledging the impact the situation was having on him. “You can see the torment sufferers from mental health issues are going through, but at the same time it’s easy to forget that your own issues can have a big impact on someone who initially was doing well,” he says. “I went back on antidepressants and was in tears and sleeping less. The most heartbreaking part of all is, he was my best friend, and I didn’t see that in him anymore. I actually got upset with him for acting selfishly towards us, not thinking of us and the pressure it was putting on us.”

You’re not the cause or the fix for somebody’s mental health problem so don’t take on that responsibility, but do acknowledge what they're experiencing and encourage them to seek support.

There’s no blanket solution to dealing with these difficult situations, but the mental health charity Mind is aware of the issues and their Student Minds study is specifically designed to help accommodation providers deal with mental health issues in students. That support structure isn’t available in privately rented accommodation but Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, encourages seeking external help if support isn’t available within your house. “Speak to a friend or family member or go to your GP, who can talk you through the support that’s available. It can be daunting, but Mind has produced a guide on how to speak to your GP about mental health. If you think a fellow student or flatmate might be experiencing a mental health problem, the most important thing that you can do is to encourage them to seek appropriate treatment. You can reassure them that it is possible to do something to improve their situation.”
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Francesca believes communication would have improved her housing situation, but also says that worrying less about what her housemates thought would have helped. “I think focusing on my own meal plan and needs, rather than looking to my housemates and what they were doing,” she says, when I ask what would have made it better.” Similarly, Georgiou urges anyone witnessing their housemate suffering not to neglect their own needs. “You’re not the cause or the fix for somebody’s mental health problem so don’t take on that responsibility, but do acknowledge what they're experiencing and encourage them to seek support,” she says. “It’s important to acknowledge that living with someone with a mental health issue can be hard, but those issues are more common than we think. They don’t have to be scary.”
*Some names have been changed.
For support and information, visit Samaritans or Mind
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