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Executive Summary

Loneliness is a common shared emotion that all people experience to some degree, from moments of feeling alone to, in certain cases, depressive illness. It is shaped by many factors. On the personal level, there are the individual (e.g., mental and physical health) and social aspects (such as quality and quantity of interactions). But there are also situational (like life transitions) and structural influences (for instance, socio cultural norms).

In our pursuit to understand what loneliness is and who it may af-fect, we have uncovered an abundance of knowledge to suggest that loneliness is universally felt yet uniquely experienced. Specifically, we have found, through both research and discussion with experts, that environmental structures influence the experience of loneliness for certain communities. These include socioeconomic stressors, such as low educational attainment, to built structures that might create barriers to equitable social connection, such as social media networks or public health systems. As we shared in our previous work, Lesson in Loneliness, the critical question is whose loneliness matters.

While most studies reporting on the burden of loneliness center on industrialized nations, such as the U.S. and the UK, this report offers insights into the similarities and differences driving feelings of loneliness in an emerging and developing country, India. In 2004, India reported that 4.91 million people in the country both lived alone and felt lonely (Bubna, 2020). More recently, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) released findings that 12 percent of Indian youth reported feeling depressed often, and 8 percent reported feeling lonely quite frequently (CSDS et al., 2017).

As with our earlier examination, the following text focuses on the itersection of loneliness, technology, and social connection. In this discussion, we pay even greater attention to the cultural and historical contexts that may shape how loneliness is approached in different regions. This report is informed by discussions with practitioners, scholars, academics, researchers, technologists, and Kamalnayan Bajaj Fellows from across India hosted in November and December 2020 in partnership with the Ananta Centre. It reflects emerging themes that address a range of issues, including how loneliness and mental health is recognized and mitigated through-out the country, as well as the role technology currently plays in en-abling access and/or exacerbating harmful effects of loneliness. Surprisingly, despite several differentiating factors, such as political and cultural norms, the question of whose loneliness matters echoed loudly once again.

This report has two main sections. The first, History and Tradition, touches on India’s unique history with mental health and the poli-tics that have shaped its current approach. Moreover, it brings forth a brief discussion of the influence of religion and spirituality in shaping notions of loneliness and solitude. Embedded in this, we also find the role language plays in the recognition and acceptance of loneliness throughout the country. The second section, Access and Equity, illuminates the role of technology, specifically social media, in India. The discussion reflects a wide range of perspectives on both the potential positive and negative trade-offs to the rise of technology use in the country. Moreover, the section includes a dis-cussion on the socioeconomic barriers that underscore the need to determine whose loneliness matters.

We recognize that there are a multitude of factors that may impact how loneliness is identified, experienced, and mitigated throughout India. This report is not conclusionary or comprehensive. For example, we only lightly touch on issues such as a lack of research around loneliness and or the intersectionality of loneliness with identity, as these concerns warrant much further detail. Instead, the goal of this report is to provide a sense of emerging themes, specific to the Indian context, to prompt further exploration in the future. In addition, we hope that, in sharing these insights publicly, we find common paths towards more equitable mental health and social connection resources.

Emerging Themes

Political History and Traditions. From ancient Ayurvedic manuscripts to the 2016 Mental Health Care Bill, India’s political climate and spiritual traditions influence today’s conceptualization of loneliness, particularly as it relates to public perception and public aid. Throughout the country’s history India has exhibited a tension between normalizing and stigmatizing loneliness.

Language and Expression. A translation for the term “loneliness” does not exist across the many languages and dialects spoken in India, including Hindi, the official government language. Participants suggest that the absence of such terminology is a double-edged sword. For some, it prevents an accurate articulation of the emotion, thus limiting the development of appropriate interventions. For others, the lack of terminology reflects a long spiritual tradition that emphasizes “time alone” as an essential part of the human experience that leads to liberation. This phenomenon is shared among various philosophers around the world (from Jiddu Krishnamurthy to Sakyamuni). Therefore, technology is often seen as a tool to help individuals navigate mental health issues—not solve for them.

Access and Equity. Given socioeconomic conditions, political realities, and technology advancements, access and equity are critical to helping people navigate loneliness and mental health disparities across India. Experts from India are optimistic for the role technology can play in this process, more so than was exhibited in the sessions with U.S and UK representatives. Technology, as some participants from India noted, is a necessary component to bridging the aspirations of India’s National Mental Health Policy with its realities of limited resources and capacity to serve its population. In other words, it plays a critical role in facilitating access and equity. However, the tech sector must be careful that its products do not further amplify social and economic inequalities.

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