There are many lost kids out there. They are either dragging their feet in college for years after they are supposed to have finished, or have graduated but are disinclined to apply for jobs. Some of them take up jobs that are far below their ability and qualification. They use the paltry pay as pocket money and continue to stay in their parents’ home, neither asking for nor contributing anything.
What bothers parents most is the stonewalling, the refusal to engage in a conversation about it. The worst cases are where the kid stays holed up in his room with a laptop, does not come out even for meals, and raids the fridge at night.
There is no word in English – nor is there one in the DSM-5 – for this. However, the Japanese have a word for it: hikikomori, which roughly translates to acute social withdrawal. Hikikomori are adolescents or adults who have withdrawn totally from society, not leaving their room for weeks or months on end.
This phenomenon has been studied most in Japan because the country’s demography, culture and current job situation have apparently turned many youngsters – and adults – into hikikomori.
Who are these reclusive youngsters who quit mainstream life? This is a generalisation based on kids I have seen in clinical practice. A hikikomori in India is most likely to:
- belong to a middle- or upper-middle-class family
- be described as ‘sensitive’ and more inclined towards the arts, though he might hold a degree in science, business or law
- have been sent to the ‘best’ educational institutions, hence expected to ‘succeed’ spectacularly by everyone, including extended family, a daunting situation that he is not up to facing
- have done extremely well in school but poorly in college
- have a recent history of failure, either academic or in a romantic relationship
- not want to attend family events because he’ll have to explain why he is doing nothing
- muse about whether all the slogging through school and college was worth it because life is pointless
- tell you he’s reading philosophy and it makes more sense than the boring lectures in college
- say that he sleeps during the day and sits up all night because it is peaceful
All these young people unhappily searching for meaning and direction, looking for peace, trying to hide from nosey relatives to protect their parents’ honour . . . It’s sad. Why is this happening to our kids?
One reason could be that they never got a chance to find out what they wanted from life because parents had set the course for them. To give parents their due, most see education as a means to a career and a steady income, not necessarily an exciting job. After all, they are funding it. The tussle over choice is now a common Hindi movie trope, and Indian parents are hopefully re-thinking Education.
Anyway, right now we have to do something about these apathetic kids. Without motivation there’s no impetus to go anywhere, get a job, do anything. So they stay in their rooms, numb, lost in their own world.
The apathy you see in hikikomori is not different from the apathy of a patient with a lesion in the prefrontal cortex, because that is the part of the brain that buzzes with ideas and energy to explore new possibilities.
One part of the prefrontal cortex gets you energised to make a plan; another sets the tasks for carrying out the plan; another executes it; another part monitors the execution; another part moderates your emotions. The foremost rounded part of the brain, the frontal pole, coordinates all of this, plus input from some other parts of the brain. So there can’t be any progress without energisation, the starting point for action. This is apathy, and it manifests as withdrawal. That is what neuroscience tells us.
Psychology says there is a deficit of Theory of Mind, i.e. difficulty understanding others’ intentions, and how their own behaviour impacts others. This is the same kind of deficit one sees in people with autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia! So, the tendency to withdraw rather than confront might be a stable trait, that is, hardwired in the personality. Anyone trying to help a hikikomori re-integrate into the mainstream would have to consider this limitation.
There is no established way of dealing with hikikomori as yet. We probably have to connect with them, find out what energises them, light a spark and hope the other steps in the prefrontal cortex follow. We have to be supportive until they are ready to test the waters. This is not easy and it takes time. It might not even succeed. Meanwhile, we need to reset our priorities vis-à-vis raising children before we start giving these unhappy people labels or creating a new category in the DSM-6.