Being a Good Roommate to Someone with Mental Illness or Chronic Illness

This article compiles advice from chronically ill, disabled, and mentally ill individuals and applies that advice to the topic of college roommates. To learn more, talk to and learn from disabled people and disability advocates.

By Ceanna Hayes Daniels — June 5, 2023

Being a Good Roommate to Someone with Mental Illness or Chronic Illness

It can be easy to assume that our college experiences will be picture-perfect — filled with amazing classes, rewarding work, and the kind of friends that last a lifetime. Although many students are lucky enough to find this summary (at least generally) true, other students face complicating factors which limit this kind of easy-going enjoyment of college life. For example, some students have mental illnesses or chronic illnesses which can severely limit their energy levels, restrict their free time, minimize their working hours, and impede their day-to-day enjoyment of the activities that other students take for granted. If you are the roommate of someone living with long-term illness like this, there are several actions you can take today to be a good roommate.

Remember that You're Not a Doctor

No matter how well-intentioned your advice may be, your chronically ill roommate has likely heard and tried it all before. Rather than telling them that a certain type of exercise or a particular supplement would cure them, remember that they work with an entire medical team to effectively manage their health. If yoga alone could cure them, then they would not still be seeing those doctors. Similarly, don't offer dismissive advice to a mentally ill roommate. While devoting time to exercising and eating healthfully can be beneficial, it isn't necessarily a cure-all, and your friend will only be hurt by someone telling them that their mental illness is all in their head and they just need to go outside.

Before you comment on someone's physical or mental health, ask yourself if the sentence you planned to say includes the word "just", "should", or "will." If it does, reconsider saying it. For example, saying "just exercise!" will not cure your roommate's anxiety, and the advice "you should ignore those intrusive thoughts!" is flat-out unhelpful to an individual living with OCD. Similarly, any guarantee or promise — "this supplement will definitely cure your Crohn's" — will only ring hollow and feel dismissive to those suffering from poor physical health or ongoing struggles with their mental health. Only share advice on treatment if your roommate requests it from you or expresses willingness to talk about the topic. Otherwise, trust that their experience living with that condition has taught them more about it than your anecdotal familiarity can, and choose to withhold your commentary.

Ask How You Can Support Them

Many chronically ill students have lived with their conditions long enough to know what they can handle alone and what tasks or activities they may need assistance to complete. While big gestures of kindness — like offering to trek to the store to bring them food or medication — could be both welcome and appreciated, your roommate may not need the help you planned to offer. Alternatively, they might need help with a task you hadn't considered.

For example, if your roommate uses a wheelchair, they're likely used to navigating and moving on their own. As a result, even if you meant well, trying to push their wheelchair somewhere might feel like a violation rather than assistance. (Put yourself in their shoes — would you be comfortable if someone came up behind you and began pushing you towards the door? It's unlikely.) Rather than assuming that your intentions will perfectly map onto your roommate's plans for the day, just ask if there's a way you can help. If it's doable, honor their request without assuming you know better than they do. If their request is something you cannot help with, offer to help them find someone else who can!

Just remember — there's a difference between asking if you can do something for them and putting them into a situation where they "need" something so you can feel like you've done them a service. If your instinct to act is rooted in a desire to make yourself feel good, re-analyze whether they actually need something from you before you try to act. If your instinct is rooted in a desire to make their life easier, it's more likely to be genuine and helpful.

Believe Them on Their Bad Days

For roommates of students with chronic health issues, one of the best ways to show kindness is simple: believe them on their bad days. Individuals who have spent most of their life healthy may begin to doubt the legitimacy of their chronically ill or mentally ill roommate's struggles simply because those struggles are so severe, overwhelming, or simply unfamiliar.

In extreme instances, some students might believe that their roommate is faking their chronic illness and begin to resent them for their needs and limitations — a mindset that is ultimately destructive to both parties. If you find yourself resenting or judging your roommate, ask yourself why you feel threatened by someone around you having and expressing certain needs for support. It could be that you actually need more support than you're allowing yourself to admit, and only resent your roommate because they're receiving what you long for but fear requesting. As overwhelming as this might initially sound, acknowledging that need will have enormous long-term benefits.

In general, never assume that "healthy" is the default; in the US alone, one in four adults live with a disability. Be sympathetic towards those who are open about their struggles, and withhold judgement from those who try to power through without discussing their difficulties.

Don't Reduce Them to Their Symptoms or Their Story

While sympathy is important, be careful not to become so fixated on all the reasons someone is suffering that you begin to treat them as their illness rather than as a person. Few things are as dehumanizing as being reduced to a set of symptoms, so even if you thought you meant well, doing this to your roommate will likely be both hurtful and offensive.

In the same vein, don't expect disabled, chronically ill, or mentally ill people to unfailingly be heartwarming success stories. They're ordinary people just like you, with good days and bad days. Treating them as though the most important element of their existence is the way that they overcome their limitations is, ultimately, just as dehumanizing as reducing them to their symptoms. Even though it looks different — and may even feel like showing them respect or kindness — it's ultimately just another form of defining someone by their symptoms.

In addition to being dehumanizing, treating someone chiefly as a success story can lead to anxiety and create pressure to perform at an unsustainable level. If disabled people are only acknowledged when they're at absolute peak performance or when they're least affected by their disabilities, they can begin to feel that they only have value in those moments. This can cause anxiety about how they'll be perceived on an average or bad day, when their illnesses limit them and they need accommodations to manage. If you only acknowledge them when they transcend those limits for brief periods, it can start to feel like you only think of them as people on occasion.

Invest in Your Own Physical and Mental Health

One of the most important elements of being a good roommate to someone with chronic illness or mental illness — and in fact, one of the most important elements of being a good roommate to anyone — is to invest in your own well-being. If you don't eat the foods that get you the nutrition you need, you'll get sick. If you don't get enough sleep, you won't be rested enough to help anyone around you. If you don't take time to prioritize your mental health, you'll struggle with burnout and emotional exhaustion that you don't need to carry. Taking care of yourself is an essential part of a good life, and an undeniable pre-requisite to being a good roommate. Don't ignore self-care and call it taking care of others; allow yourself to recognize that your needs are crucial, too.

Part of prioritizing your mental health is setting and maintaining boundaries. If you're worried that your roommate's mental illness is becoming difficult for them to manage and you begin to fear for their safety or yours, go talk to an RA, the Deans, a counselor, or another individual with access to resources that can help your roommate. You are a college student, not a therapist or a doctor. You are only obligated to be a roommate to your roommate — nothing more. No matter how much you love your friends, you are not - and should never be made to feel - responsible for their lives. That is not a burden you can or should carry. In addition, if you were made to fill a caretaker's role for your roommate, there are people and resources on campus to make sure you receive support as you heal and recover from that emotional burden.


If your roommate is chronically ill or mentally ill, you might find yourself overthinking how to be a good roommate towards them. However, using these guidelines can help you to act in a way that is helpful and respectful rather than dismissive and unproductive.

Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels is freelance writer and editor. In 2022, she graduated Hillsdale College summa cum laude with a degree in politics. In her free time, she continues to enjoy studying philosophy, political theory, and literature. She and her husband live in Michigan, where the two enjoy perusing bookstores together for new books and old records.
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