The concepts have come from Japan, wrapped in words, sometimes uplifting, sometimes baneful. There is Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, an abstraction every bit as delightful as it sounds. There is Kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery by mending the crack with powdered gold or silver. And now, there’s Hikikomori. Which sounds like something soft and cuddly that your Golden Retriever might drag around faithfully wherever he goes.
Except, it’s not. Hikikomori is a word that raises the flag for acute social withdrawal. It defines a condition where individuals, usually adolescents, isolate themselves, taking reclusive behaviour to alarming new heights. Hikikomori is a severe withdrawal from love, from life, from people. The modern-day hermits who suffer from this condition do not leave their rooms for days, months, even years on end, preferring to go without human contact rather than dredge up the effort it takes to engage.
And yes, Hikikomori is alive and thriving amidst us, here in India. One of the country’s more eminent psychiatrists, Dr Ajit V Bhide, who is currently preparing a paper on the growing epidemic of loneliness, says it is a phenomenon we are encountering in India more than ever before. The cases he has handled so far involve high school/college students, more males than females. And, he says, it stems from issues they have been struggling with: some have a disturbed family background, some have sibling rivalry issues. Dr Bhide is also very clear that while Hikikomori may have commonalities with depression, it is not a facet of depression in most cases.
While a slew of factors are attributed to the condition like Asperger’s syndrome, PSTD, personality disorder and more, one common element seems to be that they are people who suffered some kind of trauma, mild or severe, early in life, we're unable to cope with it and pushed it down, several layers below. Denial, though, is not equal to deletion. Years pass and a fresh emotional exigency comes along, dredging up the old ones, often with devastating results. Conflict at school, in the workplace, with parents, with the Significant Other, just about any of these trauma-inducers can push an already vulnerable person into the Hikikomori state.
Given that India is currently in a state of perpetual heave, the old constantly being challenged by the yet-to-settle new; faith, traditions, the family set-up, all developing fissures; with the economy on a precarious perch, and the restive migration flux, it is but natural that the more vulnerable among the young ones (India has around 65 per cent of its population below the age of 35) are naturally being pushed to the wall, or in this case, pushed further into their secluded rooms. And of course, social media adds to this conundrum. The distressing truth is that people, especially young people, have tonnes of friends across social media platforms but hardly any IRL that they might open up to.
It’s time to get the hapless Hikikomori out of their room. Mental health providers say the family is the QRT they need, working alongside the medical professional to provide effective support, empathy, calibrated quantities of much-needed distraction, and eventual healing. Some walls need to be acknowledged, gauged, then gently brought down. This is one of them.