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Lonely in the crowd

Loneliness has emerged as a major mental health issue with serious consequences

Lonely in the crowd

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Renu Sud Sinha

Feeling lonely in the world’s most populous country, that too in the age of Internet and social media, seems like a paradox but isn’t.

UK and Japan have separate ministries to deal with loneliness; US Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy has termed it a public health crisis with serious consequences, including increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and premature death.

Mostly an urban phenomena, mental health experts in India have also reported a sharp increase in mental health issues, especially among the youth.

Delhi-based Raima (24) was in Class VII when she realised being sad and crying all the time wasn’t normal. When her dysfunctional family chose to overlook it, it manifested in self-harm and abusive but dependent relationships since Class XII. A move to a different city for higher studies had its own problems but was still a welcome relief away from her emotionally-distant parents. “Living with them during the lockdown brought back old abandonment issues affecting my new-found fragile stability. I chose to stay with a friend during the second lockdown.” Drifting between therapists, she’s finally found the one who, Raima thinks, has given her some hope and direction.

Clinical psychologist Kamna Chhibber, who has co-authored a book, ‘Alone in the Crowd’, on urban loneliness, says the problem has been rising over the years.

“Almost all age groups are affected because of the reduced social connections. For the elderly, it may be due to spousal loss or breakdown of families as the young move away; the middle aged are tired emotionally and physically because of busy, aspirational lifestyles, having no energy or desire for socialisation. The youth, despite being highly connected socially and digitally, are surprisingly the most affected,” she adds.

“Because the cell phone has now become a family member leading to conspicuous consumption of social media, particularly by the young. That has created a false perception of sharing among them,” says Delhi-based counsellor Pooja Priyamvada.

Indian society and families have no sense of personal boundaries. That’s how social media platforms have emerged stronger as safe alternative spaces for the young. Alienation from family, coupled with a false perception of sharing in the digital world hinders the young from building deep emotional bonds in the real world. Besides, the ease of forming online friendships makes them easy to discard also. This leads to their complete isolation. The need to connect or being heard makes them reach out to complete strangers online, making them susceptible to dangerous situations, adds Priyamvada.

In the physical world, too, as the young move to big cities to study or work, the uprooting comes with its own problems, says Delhi-based counsellor Feisal Alkazi, who has been working with the Sanjivini Society for Mental Health for 30 years. “Coming from small cities and protected households, for most students/youngsters, metros present an alien culture and lifestyle. As they try to adjust, they experience alienation from family and feel isolated in the absence of friends and support system. To escape this loneliness and to fit in, this vulnerable lot may turn to alcohol and drugs, and adopt a bravado that may lead them to dangerous situations,” adds Alkazi.

“There is constant pressure to be connected, FOMO, making you do things you don’t want to or like, partying, going out. Almost everyone ends up overspending. For those who have come from other states, this causes serious budgeting issues. When they can’t keep up, they feel left out. None of the partying friends are around to help. This starts a vicious cycle — of feeling lonely, being not good enough, isolation and alienation — that’s difficult to break,” says Kia (21), who’s recently graduated from DU and has been in therapy for similar issues for four years.

Loneliness severely affects physical health too, says Delhi-based clinical psychologist Ashita Mahendru. “It leads to diminished physical and cognitive activity and affects immunity,” she adds.

The problem increased manifold during the pandemic. “However, if Covid exacerbated the issue, it also brought focus on it, destigmatising therapy,” says Mahendru.

Families, society, educational institutions have to shed biases and be more accepting. Community activities should be encouraged. Above all, we need to provide safe spaces, both at home and outside, so that people can talk about mental health challenges without fear or shame.


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