Is living alone or with others better when struggling with your mental health?

Trying to rent in London is hard enough, but having mental health issues makes things trickier.

There is a lot to consider. Is it better to live alone and not see people for several days on end when you are having a downward spiral, or to have a flatmate who can give you a gentle nudge to go out for a walk or who you can at least sit and watch TV with?

Do you crave contact or are you happy being by yourself? Is it good for those of us with mental health issues to spend so much time by ourselves?

One study found that those who live alone have an 80% higher chance of having depression than those who live with other people.

But it could be either that those who are depressed are more likely to want to live alone or that living alone isn’t good for our mental wellbeing.

Psychotherapist Somia Zaman tells that it is indeed possible for issues to develop from solo renting.

She says: ‘Many people respond to making decisions based on feeling and not need. For many the comfort of isolation and the known environment, despite perpetuating their loneliness, becomes a feeling of safety which is why building a routine is important and is practiced in some therapies as a possible way to move forward.

‘There is no one right way of living, whether it’s alone or with a group of friends, family or strangers that will cause mental health issues or exasperate them but humans are physiologically designed to live amongst one another so complete isolation isn’t recommended.

‘Those who chose to live alone aren’t necessarily more emotionally stable, these people most likely have strong family and friendship support networks.

‘There is also a difference between living alone and being lonely but there is also a difference between being alone through choice or necessity. The latter weighs more heavily on many.’

Katy James, Chartered Psychologist at Vita Health Group, says: ‘The experience someone has living with others can depend on whether the person chose to live with those people, whether they are friends or strangers and also what mental health issues they struggle with.

‘For example, someone with social anxiety may prefer to live alone and feel better during the pandemic because they are relying on avoidance circles but as things start to become normal again, they will find it harder to break this cycle.

‘It’s better to try not to avoid things you’re scared of, managing them instead (potentially through therapy) is a better way to move forward.

‘Living with others while struggling with depression can help and be used as a motivator. However, it can feel like an added pressure to be social when you aren’t at a capacity to be. Living with others can come with expectation, our expectations of others and theirs of us which need to be managed.’

But for those specifically living with depression, Katy says that generally they can benefits from living with others.

Tahmina, who in the past has struggled with anxiety, said: ‘I’ve lived alone and with people but prefer to live with people. When I’ve been too anxious, I feel like I’ve been pulled back by having to contribute to those around me whether it’s a casual conversation or house chores.’

Sahina, who struggles with depression, anxiety and PTSD, added: ‘Living with a housemate wasn’t something I thought would help my mental health as in my head I sought solitude, and space to work through my issues.

‘In the last year, having a friend and housemate by my side when rock bottom hit, has actually helped in bringing me back up. In making me feel like I’m not alone, in coping with the things I struggle with, and just lending support and strength and distractions when I needed it most, often when I didn’t realise I needed it at all.’

Others feel having their own space is much more beneficial, like Sarah, who says: ‘I was extremely depressed and suicidal as a student, both during undergrad and postgrad.

‘Living alone helps me now as I can withdraw and give myself the care I need, but at the lowest point of my depression I was terrified of disappearing into myself, and clutched desperately at any company that would anchor me to life.’

Rachel, 32, who suffers from depression, anxiety and complex PTSD adds: ‘While living with flatmates I felt constantly on edge with people I didn’t know and trust. I felt unsafe where I lived because there were strangers around – this wasn’t a reflection of the people I lived with but my mental health.

‘I felt like I needed to hide from them if I was having a bad time and struggled with things. I didn’t want to disclose all my mental health stuff to justify not helping with chores.’

When making decisions on living with others, Dr Rachel Sumner, from the University of Gloucestershire, says we should consider how we feel about ourselves and whether we can confront and address situations

Coping with these conflicts has been more difficult during the pandemic. People who would diffuse or disable the situation with an angry walk around the block to cool off or trip to the post office, lost this during lockdown.

Chloe, who struggled with severe depression and generalised anxiety says: ‘I was living in quite cramped shared houses, and I found that when I was really low or my anxiety was really high I would shut myself in my bedroom and avoid being in communal spaces.

‘This had a significant impact on how I ate, and resulted in a lot of quick dinners, ready meals or takeout, which I don’t imagine did my mental or physical health a great deal of help.

‘This was a big motivator for me in moving out on my own, which I did four years ago. I found the experience quite transformative, while living alone wasn’t the only thing that helped me recover, it did help me to set healthy boundaries about being in my bedroom which in turn helped to improve my sleep and it helped me to take command over my nutrition by spending more time in the kitchen.

‘It’s a really deeply personal thing. But for me moving out on my own was a really key part of recovery.’

Ultimately, the decision is based on what works for each individual. While some crave company, others need space and we need to balance what helps each of us most.

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