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Animal Assisted Intervention for Hong Kong’s ‘Hikikomori’

The therapeutic value of animals to relieve stress in the young, elderly and sick has been documented by academics and medical professionals around the world. But what has not been known until relatively recently is how therapy animals can also help people who have difficulties dealing with modern society and lock themselves away in their rooms. Dr Paul Wong, Associate Professor at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, is working with a non-profit-making social service organisation to study how therapy animals, mainly trained dogs, are helping Hong Kong’s hidden youth to regain their self-belief.

The therapeutic value of animals to relieve stress in the young, elderly and sick has been documented by academics and medical professionals around the world. But what has not been known until relatively recently is how therapy animals can also help people who have difficulties dealing with modern society and lock themselves away in their rooms.

This phenomenon was first identified in the 1990s in Japan where it was called ‘hikikomori’ to describe acute social withdrawal. According to the Japanese government figures released in 2010, there were 700,000 individuals, with an average age of 31, living as hikikomori across the country as young people continue to drop out of school and society.

Similar cases have been found around the world, including Hong Kong where it is called ‘hidden youth’ and has the equivalent prevalence in the city as it did in Japan in the 1990s.

Based on a systematic review Dr Paul Wong, Associate Professor at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at The University of Hong Kong, estimates there are between 20,000 to 40,000 hidden youth in Hong Kong displaying social withdrawal behaviour.

In Hong Kong, a non-profit-making social service organisation has established a mentorship programme using trained animals to try to entice these young people out of their rooms and back into society in conjunction with their social workers.

Dr Wong and Project Officer Dr Rose Yu are working as external evaluators with the Chinese Evangelical Zion Church Social Service Division to study how therapy animals, mainly trained dogs, are helping Hong Kong’s hidden youth to regain their self-belief.

“The Regain Momentum mentorship programme is a multi-component programme organised by Zion youth centre and the main target is for withdrawn youths in the community,” said Dr Yu. “As far as I know this is one of the first research study on using animals in a therapeutic intervention in Hong Kong, so everything is very new.”

While using therapy animals is accepted in other parts of the world, Dr Wong said it’s a new social service approach in Hong Kong and he is hopeful that if trained animals can partner with social service providers then it will show that trained dogs can enhance the benefits of these programmes.

“More people are approaching us and saying we want to work with you and want to learn from you,” Dr Wong said. “This is a really good sign to tell us that more people are accepting the idea that using animals in the social services are helping more people.”

As a sign of the interest in their ongoing research, Dr Wong and his team were invited to Japan in March 2018 to deliver a presentation to the Akita government on how therapy dogs might be used to help hikikomori in the prefecture.

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