Social distancing and an indefinite lockdown form a perfect storm for mental health. Will a crisis of anxiety follow?
For Shige, who lives in Akita, Japan, a routine of social distancing is all too familiar. It is one he has known for the better part of his 28 years.
His world includes, and is limited to, his parents’ house, the grocery store, and a park down the street. He spends hours reading and eventually retires to the entertainment television has to offer.
“People think I’m lazy”, he says, but that label is incorrect. He is among Japan’s 1.5 million social recluses, who the government identifies as hikikomoris.
Like Shige, they withdraw from society for longer than six months and interact only with family members. To be a shut-in is not a choice, he clarifies. The last time he interacted with people in real-time was three years ago.
As scientists link lockdown to a flattened pandemic curve, millions are placed under a regimen of social distancing. But months inside can feel longer for those accustomed to person-to-person contact.
Soon, people began relating to hikikomoris, and Shige’s lifestyle found itself entering the mainstream conversation.
Research suggests that anxiety, isolation, uncertainty lie on the spectrum of ‘social withdrawal’, of which hikikomori falls on the extreme end.
The phenomenon is more global than we realise
Possible reasons for hikikomori include low self-affirmation and fear of exclusion or of new
environments, according to an Akita University study by Dr Roseline Yong and Dr Kyoko
Yong’s research also relates employment opportunities and use of technology with honing their outlook. On a global level, these factors define patterns of social behaviour.
The phenomenon of social withdrawal has carried itself to parts of India, Hong Kong, Spain, Italy, and more. Marcus Tan, a clinical psychologist at NHS, believes countries like the United Kingdom may not be impervious – “it may simply be a case of people calling the same thing different names.”
In 2015, Prince’s Trust, a charity offering employment opportunities to youth in the UK, found more than half of unemployed young people anxious about everyday life. Four out of ten said that this anxiety stopped them from leaving their house.
Jobless people, it found, were at risk for isolating themselves.
Five years later, the burden of unemployment has sprung from a flattened economy. In America, a record 40 million people filed for unemployment due to the crisis. In India, the estimate was almost threefold – pegged at 112 million.
However, Tan mentions how work-related stress can be equally damning. Work-from-home models find people bogged down by 24×7 work cycles and notions of productivity. A survey by LinkedIn noted 56 per cent people felt more stressed about work than before the lockdown.
Social distancing, in turn, has accelerated internet use and social media engagement. The Global Web Index found almost 80 per cent of people in the US and UK to be consuming more content since the outbreak.
The world now on their screens – they can shop, work, interact online. Internet connectivity has filled the lacuna of social distancing – imbuing the pandemic with a sense of togetherness.
Yong finds technology to play a significant part in facilitating the hikikomori lifestyle – helping them perform rudimentary tasks without interacting with people. However, for non-hikikomoris, Yong argues that lack of real-time interaction could also fuel patterns of social anxiety.
Strokes of an “Anxious Nation”
In 2015, a report by Michael Orton found financial, housing, and job insecurity manifesting as stress and worry in the UK. It contributed to the making of an “anxious nation.”
Stressors of a pandemic – like isolation, uncertainty, economic turmoil, fear of infection – have in turn imbued their insecurity with immediacy, causing anxiety levels to surge globally. In May, the United Nations warned that these factors are “sowing the seeds of a mental health crisis.”
Yong concurs that prolonged social withdrawal could have a lasting effect. She advocates for strong government intervention, peer support, and communication platforms to “prevent people from going into further lockdown with themselves.”
Conversation around loneliness and anxiety has never been more pressing, Yong notes. When in dire straits, being hopeful is the only option.