Withdrawing from the real world: A growing problem?

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

OCTOBER 3 — It is heart-breaking.

There is this girl; articulate, thoughtful and cared deeply about injustice in the world.

However, after one or two semesters her class attendance started to drop.

Her absenteeism grew more severe until, as of today, her status as a student is in question.

She just stays in her apartment, refusing to attend classes, just allowing her candidature to fall apart and default.

Then there’s the boy who hasn’t attended school since Form 3.

Counselling and advice encouraging him to sign up for courses never seem to succeed; he prefers staying at home, essentially never leaving the house.

The few friends who call him are always greeted with I’m busy or unavailable or I need to finish this video game.

The thing is this boy usually has a lot to say on online platforms like Reddit and even on WhatsApp groups but his hyper-activity in the app world is the opposite of his mega-reclusivity in the real world.

There also is this child who’s very scared of attending school because he’s afraid of being judged. The very idea that many people may even look at her with a critical eye terrifies her, so much so that she finds any and every excuse to skip school.

Her school absenteeism is off the charts as almost every day about an hour or so before she’s about to leave for school she inevitably gets diarrhoea or stomach cramps or a bad cough or a headache and what-not.

These ailments, interestingly enough, are not fake; it’s almost as if her body is in league with her mind to stave off going to school whenever possible.

What’s happening?

I don’t know if these three examples have some inter-connecting factor.

At the very least, they all resemble the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, or individuals suffering from extreme social withdrawal.

Estimates suggest there are almost a million of such folks in Japan, who have spent or are spending months, if not years, in their rooms refusing to go to school, work or join in social activities of any kind.

As with many such “disorders” (assuming we can call them that), the family members often suffer just as much as the persons in question. Confusion, frustration, helplessness and even guilt all spiral together into greater levels of despair.

It looks like there are Malaysian teens and young adults going through this situation. To the extent that this hikikomori-like behaviour reflects psychological struggles (or even mental illnesses).

In general, someone suffering from psychological stress will largely prefer to isolate, to stay away from “threatening” situations, to withdraw from environments they consider potentially threatening.

Also, while there are many causes, I suspect the root cause is social media.

The story will not be unfamiliar: Child or teen spends 25 hours a day on Discord, Tik Tok, Instagram and so on but his social interaction skills remain undeveloped or stunted, thus his ability to be a part of the community malfunctions, he’s unable to handle slights or disrespect or ambiguity among friends and acquaintances leading to increasing levels of fear in social situations which in turn causes more frequent and longer withdrawals from people.

The problem was already bad before the lockdowns; now throw in about two years of mandated isolation and Zoom schooling.

Result? More young people choosing to isolate and withdraw as defense mechanisms against a real world they find increasingly hard to understand (let alone adapt to).

Moving forward

If any of the above sounds like someone in your family, it’s probably urgent that you act fast. I’m not in favour of a “throw the baby bird out of the nest and force her to fly” approach, not with humans anyway.

Maybe we can try walking with them into their “fearful” social situations.

Maybe we can assure them we’ll always be there for them should they feel nervous or anxious. Maybe we need to simply be more patient with them, to listen to them, really listen to what scares them about society.

Let them tell us why they are withdrawing or self-isolating (most likely it has nothing to do with Covid-19).

Help them to put their phones or digital devices down. It may even require us to log off more often, too.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.