Tell Me About It: I’m now the only person he speaks to. How can I step back safely?
PROBLEM: I am college student living abroad and I have just moved into a new apartment with a friend from Singapore. We have the same friend group, but I didn’t really get to know them until we started living together.
My roommate told me he fancied someone in our group but thought he had no chance with her, I offered some advice to ask her out casually as if she said no then they could still be friends. He took a different approach (which I think may be due to different cultural norms). It didn’t end well, and she ended up blocking him from all social media.
He is completely devastated by this and has been spiralling downward since. He has isolated himself from the rest of the group and I am now the only person he really speaks to. I know he has some mental health difficulties, and this seems to have exacerbated them. He has been confiding a lot in me and makes jokes about suicide. I know he is close to his family, but he is too embarrassed to talk to them about the situation, I am starting to feel responsible for him and finding it hard to sleep as I worry that he might do something.
This is too much for me to deal with, how can I take a step back safely without leaving him isolated or seeming like I don’t care? I can’t move out as our contract is for a year, but I am finding it difficult dealing with this both at college (we are on the same course) as well as at home.
ADVICE: Many people reading this will recognise the difficult situation you are in – you have become the main support for someone who is experiencing extreme low mood and now you too are becoming debilitated by the situation. The burden of the worry that he might take his own life is very weighty. This means that you are constantly on alert and so sleep or relaxation is difficult. If this goes on for much longer, your own capacity to do well in your course, plus the ability to enjoy your life, will be affected, so action is required now.
While your friend might baulk at this push, it is very likely that he will also be relieved that his misery will get the attention that it requires and that he will not be alone in managing it
Your friend trusts you and so will know that whatever action you take will be in his best interests. Even if this is not his immediate response, the risk to his life trumps any other concerns such as confidentiality or saving face. He needs professional help and his family need to be alerted to his deteriorating situation. Most colleges have knowledge and expertise in dealing with risk issues and will have pathways of support, so what you can do is pick a time during the day – the best place might be when both of you are in college as you know he will not be alone – and put the following to him.
Give him a couple of hours to contact his family and/or the college counselling services and tell him that if he does not do this you will alert the support services yourself. (It is better if you do this early in the day while services are open and accessible.) While your friend might baulk at this push, it is very likely that he will also be relieved that his misery will get the attention that it requires and that he will not be alone in managing it.
Very often, creating a deadline is the only way to get someone to seek help but this only works if you are committed to your plan. If he does not contact his family, or services, then you need to follow through and alert them as you said you would. Doing this will allow you to again be a friend, as care for his mental health will be managed by appropriate people and not fall on you.
Break-up of relationships, or rejection by potential partners, can be a time of great upset and devastation, but most of us survive these trials and indeed we can gain great insights from these experiences. It may be that your flatmate can gain understanding of cultural differences, and, out of this experience, he may discover better ways to engage with someone he is attracted to. This is an area where you can continue to help.
You may be able to have many conversations in the future where you two discuss the dating scene, what the cultural differences in romantic expectations are and how people deal with the inevitable rejections as they navigate the process.
He will come through this difficult time and will return to his more usual state and if you both come through this, your friendship will deepen, and he may be able to offer you support when you go through your own challenges in the future.