When a College Student Has a Troubled Roommate

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When college students come home for Thanksgiving, they often bring all sorts of news about the opening months of the school year. Many will have stories to tell about the adjustment to living with roommates. But some may be seeking guidance on living with someone who has significant psychological difficulties.

College life is extraordinarily taxing for students who are suffering from pronounced mental distress or illness. (If this is true for your son or daughter, take steps to help your student secure the right supports.) But it can likewise be enormously stressful to live in close quarters with a roommate with acute or chronic psychological challenges.

To manage a challenging roommate situation, “college students will make extreme adaptations,” says Julia Routbort, the associate dean of health and wellness at Skidmore College, “especially in the first semester, because college is a completely new context for them and they are operating on instinct.” The Thanksgiving break may be the first opportunity your college student has had to step back from the situation and evaluate his or her role in it.

Indeed, it is not unusual for a college student to have mental health concerns, or to be rooming with someone who does. National College Health Association survey data collected in the spring of this year found that within the previous 12 months, nearly a quarter of college students had been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety, while nearly a fifth reported being diagnosed with or treated for depression. A smaller but noteworthy percentage of students disclosed having been diagnosed with or treated for eating disorders, addictions, sleep disorders and other psychological difficulties.

While these numbers are alarming, they might also reflect a positive development. According to Eric Wood, the director of counseling and mental health at Texas Christian University, “Twenty to 30 years ago, a student who was bipolar or had a major depressive episode probably couldn’t go to college. Because of advances in treatment, they are now on campus.”

If a college student rooms with someone whose difficulties are not well managed, these questions may help.

How severe is the problem?

Immediate action must be taken if the roommate is in imminent danger or poses a threat to others. For a pressing safety concern, a call to the resident assistant — a university employee who lives in the dormitory and is trained to protect student welfare — would be in order. Assistance can also be sought from the office of the dean of students, the campus safety department, or the local police force, especially for students who live off-campus.

If you are the parent of a college student who worries that his or her roommate will feel angered or upset by such intervention, be ready to offer some perspective.

“The hardest sessions I have,” notes Dr. Wood, “are when we have a student death and friends or roommates knew” that the student was suffering “but didn’t tell anyone.” Accordingly, he tells students that if they feel caught between keeping a secret and ensuring the safety of a roommate, “hopefully anyone would choose safety and well-being.”

How much do the roommate’s troubles bother your son or daughter?

If safety is not an immediate concern, you’ll want to find out what the roommate’s difficulties mean to your college student. For example, your son might say that his roommate drinks too much and often misses class, but that the roommate isn’t disruptive because he’s rarely in the room. Here, you might express concern for the heavy drinker and offer to be a sounding board going forward.

Or you might learn that your daughter is staying in the library until 2 in the morning to avoid her roommate or that everyone on the floor takes turns looking after the roommate on the weekends because of her out-of-control behavior. Students in those situations may need help to reconsider their responses to their roommates’ difficulties.

Does your son or daughter need help establishing appropriate boundaries?

Dr. Wood encourages parents to point out that students who “sacrifice themselves over a roommate are draining their own energy and may be taking the place of professional help,” which doesn’t, ultimately, benefit the roommate.

“Some students get so enmeshed with their roommate,” says Laura Blake Jones, the dean of students at the University of Michigan, “that this becomes their sole focus, and then we have two students who are headed down the path of not succeeding.” At these times, Dr. Blake Jones hopes parents will coach their own student to maintain proper boundaries and seek out the appropriate university resources.

What resources has your college student already pursued?

Before jumping in with suggestions about how to address the problem, find out whether your student has tried talking to his or her roommate about the concern and encouraging the roommate to seek help. “Most of the students who come to the counseling centers don’t come by themselves,” says Dr. Wood. “Eighty-five percent of the time it’s because someone asked them to. Even though they walk by us every single day, students usually need a nudge.”

If earlier efforts to talk directly to the roommate about the problem have failed, help your student weigh options such as reaching out to a resident or academic adviser or contacting the office of the dean of students or its equivalent. Universities understand that anonymous guidance can be especially useful for students who worry about the social repercussions of seeking help with a delicate roommate situation.

When looking for advice about a situation with a peer, students, “can come to the dean of students’ office and stay anonymous,” explains Dr. Blake Jones. She also notes that students can protect a roommate’s privacy by seeking consultation at the counseling center about their concerns.

Should you, the parent, step in?

Dr. Blake Jones says that her office is “happy to have calls where we advise parents on how to help their student,” with two provisos. First, parents should not reach out to the university so often that they undermine the developing autonomy of their own college student. And second, the “university cannot share information about students.”

Parents and students should also be aware that university offices may need to act on information they receive. “We are really clear up front about our role as campus security authorities,” notes Dr. Blake Jones, “and our obligation to report certain things that are shared with us.” When college officials have enough information to identify a student who may be engaged in illegal activity — such as a roommate who deals drugs — they are required to inform the police. Similarly, allegations involving sexual misconduct may be channeled to the police, the Title IX office, or both.

Should your student try to move rooms?

Changing rooms may mean moving to a different hall or building and away from other positive relationships that may have been established in the residence hall.

“Every campus will have a different set of timelines for petitioning for a room change,” says Dr. Routbort. If switching rooms is a possibility students want to explore, she advises them to look into this option early. “Getting on the room change list doesn’t mean that you are going to secure a room change, and being offered a room change doesn’t mean you have to take it.”

While quick fixes are rare, the stress of sharing space with a roommate with psychological difficulties can be counterbalanced by the supports available within any college or university. And the apprehension that students sometimes feel about seeking help from college personnel can often be tamed by coaching that comes from patient and loving adults at home.

College is for learning, and living with a troubled roommate can teach a crucial lesson that will certainly apply to other relationships in the future: clear boundaries and deep compassion can live side by side.