Sheila* and her flatmate Aaron*, both 24, shared a great relationship. They were close friends who decided to live together after they both got out of relationships at the start of 2020. During the first lockdown, they were both furloughed and had a lot of time on their hands. Hanging out constantly, the things they talked about gradually changed from video games to increasingly intense issues in Aaron's family life and problems with his girlfriend. He would knock on Sheila's door at odd hours whenever he wanted to vent.
After a year marked by periods of staying mostly at home while nearly everyone wrestles with their mental health, Sheila and many others like her have found themselves becoming readily accessible outlets on whom their housemates unload. They have gone from being a friendly ear, happy to offer words of advice in difficult times, to becoming involuntary, on-call, unpaid and unlicensed 'therapists'.
In the year they’ve lived together, Leanne*, 24, reckons that her flatmate Elle* has not once asked how her day was. Their interactions follow a predictable pattern: each time Elle returns home, she starts venting about her work problems and when Leanne eventually tries to bring up something that’s happening in her own life, Elle will quickly steer the conversation back to the topic of her own misery. "To her, I’m just an emotional punching bag who she can get annoyed with and spew her problems and insecurities," says Leanne.
As we reckon with a third lockdown, a listening ear is more crucial than ever. Mental health has taken a nosedive during the pandemic, especially among young people who are more likely than other generations to be living in shared rented accommodation. Financial difficulties from job precarity and unemployment and the looming threat of not being able to make rent can accelerate an already rapid spiral into anxiety and depression.
But these issues are impacting the 'therapists' just as much as their live-in 'clients'. Having been recently made redundant from her job in hospitality, concerns about re-skilling and finding a new role have been at the forefront of Sheila’s thoughts. Yet she makes emotional space for Aaron, which she says saps much of her mental strength for the day, leaving her unable to make much progress on job applications or online courses. "At first I was glad that Aaron trusted me enough to tell me his problems, but now it’s getting to be exhausting," she says. "I even have to schedule when he should knock on my door for my own sanity." Sheila adds that even though she stopped seeing her own therapist over a year ago, Aaron’s incessant negativity caused her existing generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) to intensify and force her to seek treatment again.
When I describe the 'flatmate therapy' phenomenon to Gin Lalli, a solutions-focused therapist and host of the Stress Bucket Solutions podcast, she’s not surprised. She often finds that clients' friends and housemates want to piggyback on their therapy. "Sometimes if their friends know they are seeing me, they get asked all sorts of questions," she says. Through quizzing Gin's clients on their therapy sessions, these friends and housemates fish for tips on managing anxiety and depression — only natural during these trying times. But Gin cautions that the intensely personal nature of therapy often means that what works for one person does not work for the next.
You cannot give objective advice if you know the person on a personal level as that's a therapist's job.
Further, she warns that acting as a substitute therapist is dangerous for both parties. Apart from the detrimental effects on the 'therapist's' own mental health, on a practical level "it really does blur the boundaries — you cannot give objective advice if you know the person on a personal level as that's a therapist’s job," she says. "If you know the client too well, you're not allowing them to make up their own mind — you're just giving advice."
"I think the fact that I had my own therapist definitely made Elle feel that I could offer her some kind of insight," says Leanne of her flatmate. This desperation to access any semblance of counselling almost certainly stems (at least in part) from the dismal reality of access to mental health treatment in the UK. Even before the pandemic, mental health services were unable to keep up with demand, with the waiting list for NHS treatment stretching up to 18 weeks. In October, research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists revealed that two-fifths of patients waiting for mental health treatment end up resorting to emergency services.
Perhaps in recognition of this crisis, providers of self-help meditation apps such as Headspace have made some exercises freely accessible for the duration of the pandemic. Scroll through a lifestyle or wellness site and you’re bound to find articles discussing tips on managing conditions such as anxiety and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Many therapists, like Gin, have even started hosting their own podcasts on stress management and mindfulness.
But for some individuals who continue using their flatmates as emotional crutches, the problem lies in not wanting to admit that they have a mental illness.
Jill's* flatmate Ryan* started getting drunk in her presence every night to ease his persistent low mood. He began opening up to Jill about his issues in deep conversations, where his anger would sometimes surface when he brought up subjects like his rough childhood. Ryan's inability to control his emotions scared Jill enough for her to worry about her safety in the house they shared. "I struggled to find any sort of means to relax around him and I worried that if I told him this, he'd just get angrier because he'd feel isolated," she recalls thinking.
She mustered up the nerve to issue him an ultimatum. "I told him he scared me enough that I was considering moving out if he did not sort it out," she says. Two days later he decided to pledge to a dry January.
Jill is fortunate, if a little surprised, that her perseverance and to-the-point approach helped her to set boundaries in their home but feels it’s unlikely that Ryan will take any further steps to help himself and is reluctant to suggest professional help. "His ego would get the better of him. A psychiatrist would be a sign of weakness," she says. Others, like Leanne, fear that they are past the point of bringing up the subject of their flatmate’s mental health and that suggesting therapy may damage their already fragile relationship. "She might think I’m rude for even hinting at it," Leanne worries.
With no end to lockdown in sight, it’s understandable not to want to cause rifts when you’re living together in a small space for such an intense period of time. Walking away, or cutting that friend out, is not an option when you're literally confined to your house. Thankfully, the act of establishing boundaries does not have to be confrontational. Gin says that being assertive does not mean being aggressive; rather, it means articulating your own needs authentically and genuinely. Being upfront about feeling personally overwhelmed, or not feeling well equipped enough are good places to start, and if you don’t yet feel comfortable to suggest therapy, “try to talk in general about mental health overall and avoid being specific.” Recommending resources such as popular podcasts, articles, and books is an excellent way to kick start a wider discussion on the subject.
It helps to remember that those who are getting a weight off their chest “are often not even aware of how much you're struggling. They may be under the impression that you're fine with them coming to you with all their issues,” Gin says. “Until you speak up they won't know — don't assume anything.” And importantly, “don't predict that they will have a bad reaction — 99% of the things we worry about never actually happen!”
Gin also stresses that the relationship can remain positive, balanced, and cordial. “Continue 'normally' as soon as you have communicated your feelings. Continue to socialise,” she says, and despite the appeal of avoiding the person, “Do not retreat and go the other extreme.”
As we await the return to normality and the ability to go out and socialise with people beyond our home and screens, mental health in a shared household is a two-way street. It’s absolutely crucial to make one’s own a priority. Gin points out, after all, that “there's a reason why they tell you on a flight to put on your own oxygen mask first!”
*names have been changed at the request of interviewees