Hikikomori in Southeast Asia and Around the World

Asian Social Withdrawal Goes Global

Sad Young Asian Woman Sitting and Looking Down
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Hikikomori is was identified in 1998 and appears to have a cultural link to changing labor market realities in Asia. Although definitions vary, in general, researchers describe it as avoiding social interaction by persistently withdrawing into your home for at least six months. 

Asian Social Withdrawl

Under the traditional system in Japan, middle and upper-class youths follow a highly structured path from adolescence to adulthood.

Adults expect them to rigorously apply themselves in high school and college, and then immediately take a professional job. The job market has traditionally been secure, and young adults expect that the first employer out of college will be the company that the young adult will remain with until retirement.

Increased globalization and changing labor markets have made this ideal unattainable for many young people. Adolescents follow the expected path through college only to discover that they are unable to find a job, or can only find one for which they are vastly overqualified.

For some young people, the realization that they did everything right but cannot reap the benefits leads them to shut down.

Hikikomori In the Western World

Researchers have found incidences of Hikikomori in other cultures, including the United States and Spain, and suggest there are sufferers in other western countries too.

A recent study of 164 hikikomori patients in Spain, published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, uncovered that the vast majority exhibited additional mental disorders, including psychosis and anxiety. This led them to conclude, Hikikomori is "a severe syndrome associated with multiple mental illnesses."

Hikikomori also overlaps with several Western mental health diagnoses including pervasive developmental disorders, avoidant personality disorder, PTSD and other anxiety disorders. 

Hikikomori vs. Agoraphobia

Hikikomori is similar in some respects to severe agoraphobia.

People with agoraphobia are afraid only of specific clusters of activity such as driving or attending crowded events, others are afraid to leave home at all. In contrast, Hikikomori is defined as a state of complete social withdrawal lasting at least three months in Korea or six months in Japan. In both disorders, sufferers typically do not communicate with anyone outside the home.

Another difference between hikikomori and agoraphobia is gender. Hikikomori is almost exclusively a male disorder, with women accounting for only 20 percent of cases. Agoraphobia is statistically more likely to occur in females, although the difference in prevalence is not significant.

Hikikomori and Social Phobia

Those with social phobia tend to isolate themselves in the house, avoiding social interactions.

On the surface, this description sounds very similar to hikikomori. However, most people with hikikomori do not report a specific fear of people or of social interactions. Instead, they seem to be taking a sort of mental health break from expectations. Therefore, hikikomori and social phobia are not exactly the same thing.

Treating Hikikomori

As a relatively new disorder, hikikomori does not yet have a specific treatment methodology. Instead, mental health professionals employ a variety of techniques to help the sufferer adapt to his circumstances.

Many people wait several years before seeking treatment, and it appears that the inclination to withdraw may subside on its own around the time that the sufferer seeks help. More research is needed to determine exactly what is happening in the minds of people with hikikomori and to adapt existing mental health treatments to specifically target the disorder.

Sources:

Foreman, William. "Young hermits: Hikikomori in Japan." University of Michigan Global Center (2012)

Grisafe, Michael. "Can Culture Create Mental Disease? The Rise of "Hikikomori" in the Wake of Economic Downturn in Japan." Mind the Science Gap. (2012)

Teo, et al. International Journal of Social Psychiatry: Identification of the hikikomori syndrome of social withdrawal: Psychosocial features and treatment preferences in four countries (2015)

Malagon-Amor, et al. International Journal of Social Psychiatry: Hikikomori in Spain - A descriptive study (2015)

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