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Dear Metro: "How do I ask my depressed flatmate to move out?"

"He's on leave from his job and he's not eating or looking after himself properly."

Dear Metro: How do I ask my depressed flatmate to move out?

Nov 6, 2019 Society

This week, a reader with a very unwell flatmate wonders whether she can ask him to move home without hurting his feelings.

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Dear Metro,

One of my housemate’s mental health has gone downhill this year to the point where he hardly comes out of his room. Doctors aren’t sure what is wrong but think it could be chronic fatigue. He’s on leave from his job and he’s not eating or looking after himself properly. My other housemates and I are all busy leading our own lives and can’t care for him like his family could. How can we convince him he needs to go back to living with his family who will look after him properly, without making him feel like we don’t care?


Concerned Flatmate

Read last week’s advice: “How do I get my flatmate’s freeloading boyfriend out of my house?”

Dear Concerned,

I wonder if you’re asking the question you really want to here. You say you can’t care for your flatmate like his family could – but do you need to be able to provide the same level of care as someone’s immediate family to support them during a hard time? I’d argue you don’t. It would be entirely possible to offer a more basic level of support, like checking in and having a chat with him when you come home from work so he has someone to talk to while he’s low, or offering on a rotating basis to cook for him so he’s getting a healthy meal at least a few nights a week.

I wonder if what you actually want to ask is whether you’re allowed to refuse to take responsibility for this person’s wellbeing. Maybe it’s because you don’t really know him that well (you haven’t specified if you live with friends or strangers) and caring for someone who is more or less a stranger might be a task you’re unwilling to impose on yourself. Or maybe it’s that he’s unwell to the point where you are very worried about him, and you can’t handle the responsibility of making sure an extremely sick person you care about doesn’t hurt themselves or worse. 

Both of those situations would be sad in their own ways, but wouldn’t make you a bad person. You are not obligated to single-handedly (or even as a flat) get this person’s life back on track – you can only support them as they work to do that for themselves. That’s not to say you should wash your hands of the situation entirely (in fact, that would be quite cruel), but it’s about setting boundaries. Decide what can you cope with, and what’s beyond what you can take on, and talk to your flatmate gently but clearly about what he’d like from you and what you can offer. I think if approached this way, telling him you want him to move back with his family (assuming this is a viable option, ie that they are loving and have a good relationship with him) could be perceived as an act of care. It shows you have noticed how unwell he is, and are concerned about both him and your ability as a household to meet his needs, because he matters to you and you want him to be well.

His moving home wouldn’t necessarily mean he was no longer part of your life. If you want to show him you do care, make sure to stay in touch once he’s moved out and keep offering your friendship and support. Watching people in our lives experience mental illness can be very distressing, but we can’t ‘fix’ them, nor should we try. We can only offer the support they need and hopefully ask for as they make that journey themselves.

With love,

Metro xx

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