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The Looming Pandemic Of Loneliness: ‘Hikikomori’ In India’s Youth

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

India is suffering from a loneliness epidemic and some Indian youths are confining themselves away from the concrete clutter of our urban agglomerates… Away from the society’s eyes.

Extreme forms of loneliness can be seen as hikikomori, which is also associated with a number of other mental health issues like depression, personality disorders, insomnia, Alzheimer’s disease etc.

Therefore, it is important for us to have early detection mechanisms in place and also intervene at the right moment to prevent acute cases of hikikomori from spreading.

Hikikomori might feel isolated due to the burden of expectations placed on them at work or in other social settings. Representational image. Photo credit: BBC Future.

In India, however, the subject of chronic loneliness as a mental health issue is still not receiving the attention it deserves. Loneliness is a common experience around the world, with 80% of people below 18 years of age and 40% above 65 years of age, reporting feeling lonely at least sometimes in their life.

Indian loneliness is generally associated with ageing and older people. Hence, a number of studies have been conducted in that regard. But, a considerable amount of youth and adolescents are reporting feeling chronic levels of loneliness, especially with the pandemic as a backdrop.

In January 2020, the British prime minister, Theresa May, announced a separate “Minister for Loneliness“, to concentrate on the condition that affects nearly 14% of the UK’s population. In Japan, it has been a condition that has affected generations since it was first recognised in the early 1980s.

In India the conversation around mental health is only getting started, especially regarding youth mental wellness.

I Spoke To Someone Who Wants To Stay Home

At the beginning of the year I talked to Karthik*, a 25-year-old recent college graduate residing in Kolkata. According to his parents, he was always a shy and introverted child, but the drastic changes in his demeanor started to become prominent in 2017.

He started to drop calls from his family, avoid social gatherings with friends and was holed up in his hostel room all day long. He came back home after his third semester break and refused to go back to the university. His parents assumed that the stress of not getting placed at a reputable firm hurt him.

Even though his parents are eager to take him to a psychologist, he refuses to do so as he feels this is something that cannot be helped clinically. He says that he feels content staying at home.

When asked about his “future” aspirations, a look of uncertainty was cast over his face and he looked unsure of what to say. He replied with, “All my past planning was futile. I don’t plan anymore. If nothing goes well, I will become a Twitch creator.”

Twitch is a social media, streaming platform where creators livestream their daily lives or videos of them playing video games. Globally, it has emerged as a main source of income for a sizeable section of the virtual society. Upon asking what his favorite video games were, he answered cult favorites like the “Resident Evil” series, “Outcast”, the viral hit “Among Us” and a few more.

He even showed us a YouTube livestream he did a few months ago, playing Among Us with online streamers. When asked about his plans to start interacting with his neighbors or the people outside his house, he showed trepidation.

For him, it’s easier to play games online as he does not have to directly interact with anyone… Calling out a couple of responses to his fellow streamers is enough.

Yet, Karthik does recognise his problem and wishes to overcome it one day, just not today or in the near future. The pandemic and the social lockdowns has also fueled his desire to avoid people.

“Even if I wanted to talk to a few of my closest childhood friends, I can’t because of this lockdown. And, my willingness to go out and meet people may soon wither away. I feel helpless yet relieved.”

I asked him if he knew about the term hikikomori and he replied with a short “Yes!” He explained that he doesn’t feel that he is one. He says he does speak with his parents and occasionally interact with online strangers when he has to. But, he isn’t particularly offended by the term either.

He knows his situation and has made peace with it. He says that he knows a couple of people, whom he met with online, and who are exactly like him, if not more intense in their seclusion. With keen eyes and an excitable demeanor, he assured us one more time that he was thriving in spite of being cooped up, when we were bidding them goodbye.

He likes being within the four walls of his home as this helps him avoid societal gatherings and he feels much better this way.

Why Would A Young Indian Experience Intense Loneliness?

Why is it that the Indian youth feels such intense seclusion and loneliness? We can attribute this to a few major factors like:

1. Failure to conform to society’s standards and expectations, or prolonged cases of  “ijime” i.e., bullying.

2. Certain people and their personality traits are also more prone to or sensitive to changes in their environment and society.

3. A strong dependency on family members may trigger this phenomenon. People feel too dependent on their family to overcome challenges and hence, they might not be able to respond well to stress.

In a professional environment, however, very strong competition among peers and loss of jobs and depressed economy may push someone to take some drastic steps in life.

4. Depression or anxiety within a person can trigger their social fear and lead them to lose motivation. They end up becoming passive-aggressive. They develop social anxiety, choose to stay at home and rarely leave their rooms.

They often reject interactions with cohabiting persons too.

In this age of globalization and the IT revolution, the means of indirect transmissions are spreading and people are directly connected all over the world through the Internet.

The need for direct social interactions is diminishing and people prefer to connect via the Internet, which further strengthens seclusion among the youth of our nation.

Causes behind spread of Hikikomori in Indian Youths
Representational image. Infographic credit: Writer.

Studies On The Mental Health Of Young People

As Sandip Chattopadhyay and Hans Dembowski wrote in their article “Unacknowledged Suffering“:

India’s mental-health scenario is worse than many think. For 2015-2016, the national institute of mental health and neurosciences (NIMHANS) reported that one in seven Indians suffers some form of mental disorder in their lifetime. Ten percent of Indians were said to require immediate intervention. Due to stigma and insufficient health infrastructure, however, only about one fifth of the people concerned were getting the needed medical support within a year of falling ill.

A study conducted by Prabha Vig and Deepak Gill, titled “Assessment of Loneliness: A study of Chandigarh adolescents“, they suggest that 62% of adolescents reported feeling lonely. The Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted WHO’s (world health organisation) article that stated that 1 in 4 children in India, between the ages of 13 to 15 years, faces loneliness.

In 2004, the NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) reported that 4.91 million people in India lived alone, away from their families, and were suffering from isolation as well as seclusion.

Recently, the National Mental Health Survey of India (2015-2016) stated that high suicidal risk is emerging to be a major concern for India; and that the youth and adolescents are especially vulnerable to mental disorders.

Nearly 10% of the Indian population is affected by anxiety and depression. In 2016, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, conducted a survey on the attitudes and anxieties of India’s youth and adolescent population(aged 15-34 years).

The final reports revealed that 12% of them reported feeling depressed and anxious often. Almost 8% reported feeling lonely and secluded quite frequently.

It is quite important to understand the underlying causes of such rampant loneliness among the young Indian population and come up with possible solutions to help them cope up with the metal stress.

Where do We Go From Here? 

In India, mental health discussions are rare and conversations are only just beginning. Not only is there a lack of discussion regarding mental health in India, but the cost of availing treatment is also through the ceiling. Hence, people prefer to stay at home where the condition goes unchecked and worsens over time.

In India, conversations around loneliness and mental health need to developed at a national level. A deeper understanding of the probable conditions, perhaps born out of conflicts in gender identity, or isolation even within the structure of family and friends, needs to be acknowledged.

According to prominent psychiatrists, treatment for hikikomori starts at home. Family is the basic unit from where an individual can expect moral help and support to overcome difficult hurdles in life. Once they feel like they have their familial support, they can then seek medical attention and professional help.

Mental ailment is no different from physical ones. It is important that people have access to professional help who can then provide guidance, assistance, support and eventual healing from this problem. It is important to acknowledge the problem rather than just brushing it under the carpet.

Loneliness is rarely understood, oftentimes criticised along with anxiety and depression. But, it is our new reality with the Covid-19 pandemic affecting our lives more than we could have thought. The impact of loneliness on our physical and mental health has been acute.

Loneliness can have a tremendously negative impact on one’s mental health. Representational image. Photo credit: DNA.

Yet, in our society, we are trained to remain under a false sense of “happiness” and “connectivity” and hence, reject the idea of medical help, which in turn causes severe psychological problems like hikikomori.

What Are Some Of The Solutions?

Families and peers should be aware of the symptoms associated with chronic loneliness and be encouraged to check social media usage by young adults. Unfortunately, these cases are considered to bring “shame” to the families and are often times hidden.

This is where the administrative bodies and social welfare services should step in, to educate them and avoid such cases of “child social neglect”. But, now, as we are slowly progressing as a nation and a society, it is important that we use all our resources available to us.

Our local support communities, social support systems and the government aided programs, family and peers, even controlled use of social media to some extent, can help in reducing the sense of emptiness that accompanies loneliness.

To conclude, I would like to quote my favorite author Olivia Laing who in her book “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” writes:

So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness?

And, to anyone suffering from intense thoughts on loneliness or self-harm: please talk about your hardships and seek professional help. To the peers and family of those affected, educate yourself on the matters of mental health to provide a better life to your loved ones.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: Akshay Gupta, PixaHive.
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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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