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Mental health

How well can university roommates judge each other’s distress levels?

With suicide among university students on the increase in England and Wales, there’s an urgent need to find better ways to support those students who are experiencing distress.

27 March 2018

By Christian Jarrett

With suicide among university students on the increase in England and Wales, there's an urgent need to find better ways to support those students who are experiencing distress.

Many campuses have provisions in place, such as student counselling services, but students often prefer to turn to their peers in times of need. This raises the possibility that students themselves are best placed to sound the alarm if and when one of their friends is going through a crisis. A new study from the US – where there are similar concerns about student mental health issues – has investigated how well college roommates are able to recognise each other's levels of emotional distress.

The findings, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, highlight the challenge of requiring students to look out for each other – generally, students who shared a room underestimated each other's distress levels. And while students who were identified by their roommates as being very distressed were indeed more likely to actually be very distressed, many of them were not, which demonstrates the problem of false alarms.

Qi Xu and Patrick Shrout at New York University recruited 187 same-sex pairs of students who shared a room together at college and had done so for at least five months (85 per cent of the pairs were female and just over half were White). In February and then again in April, the students rated how much over the previous six weeks they had experienced various emotions indicative of distress, such as hopelessness, and how much they thought their roommate had experienced the same emotions.

Overall, the students underestimated each other's distress. Gender and relationship closeness between roommates made no difference. The students were swayed to an extent by their own distress levels, such that they had a bias to see their roommate as less distressed than they were themselves (this is consistent with prior research that's found we generally tend to assume other people are happier than they are).

To get a sense of the size of the students' mis-measure of each other's distress, on average for each unit increase in self-reported distress reported by one roommate, their room buddy tended to estimate that their distress had only increased by 0.26 units (and that's even after accounting for the bias caused by any changes in the estimating student's own distress).

What about the ability of students to spot specifically if their roommate had been experiencing a significant level of distress? The researchers estimated that nearly 20 per cent of their sample had a score indicative of moderate or severe distress. If a participant thought their roommate was significantly distressed then that student's risk of actually being so was double the average rate (that is, around 40 per cent of students rated as significantly distressed by their roommate actually were significantly distressed based on their self-ratings). The problem is, this still means that the majority – 60 per cent – of students rated as significantly distressed by a roommate were not actually very distressed. In other words, if college authorities followed up every time that a student reported their roommate to be significantly distressed, there would be a lot of false alarms, meaning wasted resources, at least some awkwardness, perhaps even resentment.

Xu and Shrout said their results "underscore the need to consider peer reports as a screening tool rather than a precise source of information". They added that "more universal training on how to identify and respond to the distress of peers might have the benefit of encouraging conversations among roommates about what actions each might take if he or she noticed another experiencing extreme distress."

Further reading

Accuracy and Bias in Perception of Distress Level and Distress Change Among Same-Sex College Student Roommate Dyads

About the author

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest