If there’s one thing our current technological age has taught us, it’s that you can feed, clothe, and entertain yourself without having to interact with the wider world. As a result, the need for healthy habits, chores, routines, and decent hygiene seem to have disappeared for some people. Social isolation is not just a pandemic thing. It’s been an increasing phenomenon since the turn of this century.
Hikikomori is a Japanese term for this phenomenon. It seems to be more prevalent in Asian countries, and more common among young adult males. Many of them say they can’t handle the extreme pressure that society exerts on them to be successful. They hole themselves up in one room, and don’t emerge except to use the bathroom. Many of these people reside in the homes of their parents. Others just simply live alone. It is estimated that there are about a million Hikikomori in Japan and about 320,000 Hikikomori in South Korea alone.
Many people start to isolate themselves because of shame or defeat. They feel they’ve failed to achieve goals. They’ve had broken relationships. They fail exams. They can’t get or keep a job. In cultures where there’s an expectation of cultural uniformity and social shame, the pressures are even more intense.
Some people reenter society on their own, but that seems to be extremely rare. Others need more help, such as in one extreme case where the young man stayed in his room for 10 years. There are now more communal living places that are set up to help resocialize people, give them counseling, prepare them for jobs, teach them, once again, how to talk to one another. That’s a good thing. But the need still seems to be outstripping the availability. And Hikikomori isn’t designated as a mental illness, like depression or agoraphobia, so there’s no standardized treatment at this time. Health care providers are struggling to understand what to do.
Unfortunately, this pandemic is not helping people who want to get back out into the world. It’s harder to find jobs. It’s harder to even find places that are open. It reinforces that feeling that being isolated is the only way to be safe. COVID-19 may even be encouraging more people to become Hikikomori.
Most recovering Hikikomori seem to regret how much of their life was wasted in isolation. They miss out on so much. The internet can’t keep you warm at night. And yet it must be hard to seek the warmth of human connection when you can’t even remember how to talk to people. It’s a hard spiral to pull out of.
Not everyone can or should be prom king. There is a lot of middle ground between extreme introversion and extreme extroversion. The ruler by which we measure people should be more flexible, but also it should allow someone to say, without shame, “I need help.”
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