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There is a need for better diagnostic criteria to define Hikikomori Image Credit: Getty

“The Mukherjis are so fortunate, their son hasn’t flown the nest!” declared my mother, over the phone. She misses us and hence she wished that my brother and I should come back to India and live near her. But when she told me that Abhijeet works from home and hadn’t stepped out of his house for over six months I found it rather strange.

His eyes always reminded me of the moss on dank, clammy walls of a dilapidated mansion, which harboured many secrets and intrigues. I met the millennial on my trip back home last year. His crisply ironed T-shirt and jeans, well-manicured hands and hair that was sleekly combed back showed his meticulousness.

I mean, who wears ironed jeans at home?! He was a brilliant student who worked for a much sought after MNC. However, after some time he left his job and decided to work from home. Gradually Abhijeet turned into a hermit, withdrawing himself from the tangible world.

Recluses who withdraw from all social contact and often don’t leave their houses for years at a time are called hikikomori


He just held onto online interactions wherein he would probably appear to be an extrovert. He spoke with a slur these days and agreed to talk to us because we’ve know each other’s families since ages.

When I asked him why he wouldn’t step out, he guffawed, “I don’t need to. Everything is available just a phone call away. Who wants to face the unscrupulous world of sham anyway!” As a ritual in almost every Indian household it is a norm to push your child into the science stream; then comes the myriad entrance tests to engineering and medical colleges.

The child isn’t taught to make decisions or think on his own. The curriculum requires the students to conform to what lies within the formidable boundaries of academic forts. Hence when Abhijeet was faced with real life scenarios at the workplace he couldn’t cope up. Parents teach their children about how to attain success but do they prepare them to handle failure?

Issues of mental health

Perhaps after a stint as a special education needs coordinator in a school and having worked with counsellors in close proximity, I had learnt to sense a red flag when it came to issues of mental health.

I consulted a friend of mine who is a psychologist and she said that Abhijeet’s symptoms showed that he was someone who was akin to the many ‘hikikomori’ of Japan. The term ‘hikikomori’, often used interchangeably for the condition and its sufferers, was coined by Japanese psychologist Tamaki Saitō in his 1998. Recluses who withdraw from all social contact and often don’t leave their houses for years at a time are called hikikomori.

The triggers could be many, from work stress to dysfunctional family dynamics or inability to cope with failed relationships. In this regard, Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ could just be one of the earliest cases of hikikomori.

Dickens describes her as, “[Miss Havisham] had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased …”

The effect of technology could also be a cause of this malaise. Computer games, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, have trapped children, as they are spending a lot of time in controlled virtual environments rather than the unpredictable real world.

At the same time the internet, smartphones and social media have made indirect rather than face-to-face contact much more common. This makes the youth less resilient and less adept at interpersonal relationships. Just like we need to be exposed to dirt to develop immunity to diseases we need to be exposed to risk and failure to develop resilience and independence.

Abhijeet’s mother discreetly showed me a poem that he had written, she had tears welling up her eyes …

“I draw the blind

upon the window of my life

I resign from a world unkind;

This darkness I relish,

And it’s here that I shall perish.”

I encouraged her to seek help and after eight months of confinement, Abhijeet has finally emerged from the gloom of hikikomori. Here’s hoping more such cases get identified, treated and cured.

Times are such that we are not only under attack from the coronavirus, but also from acute ailments of mental health.

— Navanita Varadpande is a writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @VpNavanita

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