At first glance, it would appear that it is more unlikely for a country like India having a population so dense and where something or the other always seems to be happening, be it the glaring glowing crowd in exorbitant light and sound festivals, shops and houses intertwined as if they are a part of some big concrete chain, public places where people are seen to be moving like a flock of ants, to have something as peculiar and theoretically alien as the concept of loneliness. It would sound inorganic to many and probably is the reason why it is avoided and not taken seriously as an issue in India where loneliness and depression exist on an inordinate scale. Part of the problem also is the fact that loneliness is sometimes read along the same lines and books as in the mental state of a person, a discussion that is still considered a taboo in India.
We often hear stories about youths and millennials working in a city trying to achieve a better life for themselves. In the process however, certain things that have been closest to the social self of a human gets eroded and neglected. A person might be enjoying late night parties, drinking and dancing with friends, having physical relationships but still be left emotionally void inside when he returns to his or her empty apartment. The reasons are many and not every one of them can be stated nor known – the feeling of insecurity thriving in a big city, the pressure of sustaining oneself in this growing megalomaniac urban environment, to perform and exceed more than the capacity, while other reasons being- unhappy with the present state of being, not getting the preferred lifestyle, less satisfying jobs, to something as personal as- anger issues, physical insecurities, low self-esteem, being socially introverts, anxiety issues, to name a few. Relatively newer reasons like unemployment and frustrated political environment are also looming. The young, the women, the elderly, everyone has their own set of problems and reasons that somehow pushes them to the state of loneliness, whether they are isolated (imagine the only woman working in an office full of men or a father who is neglected by his son owing to his old age) or it is self-inflicted (an 18 year old who failed to crack an ‘important’ engineering exam and is hounded by people questioning his ability).
In 2004, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) reported that 4.91 million people (1.23 million men and 3.68 million women) in India were living alone and suffered from loneliness. The National Mental Health Survey (2015-16) in 12 states of India covering 39,532 people found that one in 20 people suffers from depression. The same report stated that high suicidal risk is an increasing concern in India; that children and adolescents are vulnerable to mental disorders; and, mental disorders, including depression and anxiety, affect nearly 10 percent of the population. In 2016, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in partnership with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conducted a survey of the attitudes, anxieties and aspirations of India’s young population (aged 15-34 years). The findings, released in April 2017, revealed that 12 percent of the youth reported feeling depressed often, and 8 per cent said they felt lonely quite frequently.
Psychologists say that conversations around loneliness need to expand its understanding, that is, something that is not within the realms of above mentioned reasons; Condition born out of differences in gender, class, caste or even within the same family (where “getting marks” and “success” are prime focus) needs to be studied and worked upon. Also, the increasing reliance on modern tools such as technology is another factor; virtual ‘friendships’ have wrongfully taken over real communication. Mankind has over the thousands of years lived in the proximity of physical relationships and a sudden change to something as artificial as ‘likes’ or ‘comments’ is bewildering. The idea of being ‘connected’ is misleading and often dangerous from the social media arena. Often referred to as a necessary evil in the social context, it is more evil than necessary – it has sadly become a validation for the existence of the modern generation.
Also, the understanding has to be broadened in the sense that what approach is being taken; lack of awareness leads to ‘mismanagement’ of the issue. A child who is bullied at school or abused at home might not be able to fully express his feelings of severe emotional stress. It’s a trauma that only he understands and to a large extent, doesn’t. That feeling of loneliness at the time when he was a child and nobody came to his help leaves a deep mark in him that reverberates until the day he grows up and dies. Good management would have been one where he would have been identified and taken care of so that the love and tender care he requires is rightfully bestowed upon him in the form of family support, a better environment to grow up and educate or even trying to bring in a behavioural change of the parent or his fellow schoolmates. Child counsellors and community rehabilitation are two other useful options in this case.
An issue like mental health is only getting recognition in India in recent time. Amidst the lack of information and social stigma, the heavy price one has to pay to go see a therapist is what keeps it under the rocks. Moreover, their availability is another issue, which is less than 1 per 200000 people in India. While there are no specific authorised solutions to ‘loneliness’, yet the introduction of the Mental Healthcare Act by the government in 2017 is a mammoth step in the right direction. The opening of counselling centres and sessions at many educational institutions is also a positive sign.
While everything is tried and experimented, it is equally important to consider and bring in the rural population of the country into the discussion. While farmer suicides have become a common scene, the ‘settlement’ of the issue in the form of loan weavers and further subsidies amounts to nothing if the mental state of the farmers is not resolved. The sheer pain and trauma that they go through amidst the drought season and minimal to negligible MSP for their crops is something that gets embedded into their minds and gets inflicted for generations in the form of hunger and poverty. They are mentally conditioned to be financially downtrodden forever; lack of a bare minimum of any basic resource becomes their new normal. Another victim are the migrants who in millions flock to the cities looking for better opportunities and a respectable lifestyle only to find themselves in distress. Their feeling of loneliness is more pronounced because of their disintegration at their village home as well as the lack of any family structure in the urban setting, says Surinder Jodhka, a professor of Sociology at JNU. Thirdly, the girls who get married off at an early age owing to regressive customs is something that renders mental and physical trauma and a sense of alienation at an age where friendship is the most crucial element; an age of innocence and exploration thus taken away.
In popular culture, the issue of loneliness is best addressed in films like Manchester by the Sea, The Lunchbox and also Peepli Live. In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing writes, “So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide?”
Medically speaking, loneliness is a treatable, rather than an irreversible condition. It has become a public health concern with relevant medicines and industry experts looking for relevant solutions. A newer NSSO survey should be conducted (as last done in 2004) on the number of lonely people also taking into account the intricate reasons. Apart from planned interventions of behaviour training and improving capacities to socialize, there are other strategies to help fight loneliness- keeping oneself busy, sharing feelings and thoughts with friends, helping people, collecting good thoughts, joining groups with similar interests, having a healthy physical relationship with your partner, staying in contact with family. But often understated is the fact that most people have now become self-centred, individualistic and less empathetic towards the likes of others. The showcase of genuine care and love is only seen when the same can be professionally fruitful. This in turn leads to a debilitating experience for anyone at the receiving end, from a young adult to an elderly. Eventually, that person finds no one to talk to or share his or her feelings with. Yes, sometimes being there for your fellow human being is what it all takes. Mother Teresa once said, “the greatest disease today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love…”