Hikikomori: What Does It Mean?

Hikikomori: What Does It Mean?

An article by Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) from The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest – blogging on brain and behavior, looks at hikikomori and some new insights into the condition.

Hikikomori describes people who stay holed up in their bedrooms or homes, isolated from everyone except their family, for many months or years. It refers both to the condition and the people who have it.

While hikikomori was first described in Japan, cases have also been reported in Oman, India, the US and Brazil. It’s not well understood by psychologists – no one really knows how many hikikomori exist – and there hasn’t been any population-based research. A recent study however, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, offers some new insights.

Two researchers, Roseline Yong and Kyoko Nomura, analysed survey data from over 3,000 men and women aged 15-39, who were randomly selected from 200 different urban and suburban municipalities in a cross-section of Japanese society.

Participants were asked how often they left their home, or if they didn’t go out, how long they’d stayed inside. Anyone who, for at least the past six months, never or rarely left their home, was classed as hikikomori, unless they had a practical reason for staying in, e.g. being pregnant, being busy doing housework, they were a homemaker, or they had a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The respondents also answered demographic questions and questions about their mental health.

Survey data showed that 1.8 per cent of the respondents were hikikomori but they were were just as likely to live in a village as in a big city. Yong and Nomura found no relationship with country region, number of family members or social class, but one local demographic variable did stand out as being protective: living in an area filled with businesses and shops.

It’s thought the condition has been more common among males, and this study provides the first epidemiological evidence to back this up, however 20 of the 58 hikikomori were female.

The data also showed that a very high percentage – 37.9 per cent – of the hikikomori had a previous history of psychiatric treatment. The researchers say that the higher proportion of hikikomori who are dependent on medication is also alarming.

Some of the sample group had dropped out of school or university; others had a tendency towards self-harming, but not violence to others. The most significant and strongest factor, however, was a high level of interpersonal difficulties. This was measured by how strongly they agreed with questionnaire items like being anxious about meeting people they know, what others might think of them, and being unable to blend into groups.

Yong and Nomura write: “These anxieties may be related to a sense of humiliation, which suggests that they are afraid of being seen in their current situation… Unlike anxieties found in social phobias or generalised social anxieties…. our finding of an association between hikikomori and interpersonal difficulties indicates that hikikomori fear people and the community that they know.”

The researchers say some possible treatments for hikikomori may include improving communication skills and managing expectations. They note that this type of strategy has already been tried with some success. Finding ways to keep young people in education may also reduce the risk.

We still don’t know what prompts people with these anxieties to retreat, and it’s not clear how all these factors may inter-relate, as causes or perhaps results of hikikomori. As the researchers stress, further studies are clearly needed. Their work provides some good pointers to other worthwhile research avenues.

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