Six Months on: Red Cross psychosocial teams provide human contact
- Japan Diary 5 by Francis Markus in Ishinomaki -


Amid the maze of waist-high cardboard partitions that afford the only privacy people can get in the evacuation centre, are two Japanese Red Cross Society psychosocial nurses, sitting cross-legged on the matting, each talking quietly to a disaster survivor.

“How are you sleeping?” one of them is asking a middle-aged woman. The other meanwhile is listening to another, older woman as she uses an old-fashioned blood pressure cuff to take her blood pressure. The procedure provides an opportunity for a similar friendly chat.

“Although there are lots of electronic blood pressure machines in the evacuation centres, elderly people especially are always asking us to take their blood pressure manually,” says Yuko Mitsuhata.

She is a 55-year-old psychosocial nurse who has been in the Japanese Red Cross since she was 21.

Coming from the western city of Okayama, she played an important role in the operation to support survivors after the 1995 earthquake in the nearby city of Kobe.

“In those days, people didn’t have a concept of psychosocial support; everything was all about relief and medical care. But this time round, things have changed. We thought we would have to explain to people what it is all about, but we found that people already have an understanding of it and we were able to get straight down to talking to survivors.”

(Photo: Red Cross PSP team comprised of 2 nurses and 1 administrator visits every morning. Talking to evacuees and measuring blood pressure. There is electric automatic blood measurement equipment, but no one uses it. Residents prefer to have their blood pressure measured by Red Cross nurses manually. (c) Nobuyuki Kobayashi )

Her colleague, Eri Naito, spent a few days helping survivors here in April and finds it interesting to see how the situation has changed.

“People have stopped talking about the shock and trauma of the disaster and now they are talking about the issues surrounding the move to temporary housing and who has been allocated housing and who hasn’t yet,” she says.

So I ask her if she thinks people have done enough talking about the disaster or whether they’ve shut their feelings away inside little mental boxes.

“One person said to me that every day there were people coming to talk to them about their feelings after the disaster and they’d had enough of it.”

On the other hand, “when there was a big aftershock a few days ago, we could see that some people were still very scared by it and some of them even got physically sick.”

But on the whole, people are much more focused on the future than on the past.

(Photo: Red Cross PSP team. “What makes the most difference to people’s state of mind is if they are clear about the next steps” says one of the nurses. (c) Nobuyuki Kobayashi )

In terms of the way forward for Red Cross psychosocial support efforts, once the move out of evacuation centres like this one and into temporary homes is complete --there are still several thousand people left in the evacuation centres-- the day-to-day psychosocial work will be handed over to local health authorities. This is seen as another milestone in the process of recovery.

Of course there will be problems. Isolation is an issue for many once they leave the relatively social environment of evacuation centres to live among people they’re unfamiliar with.

But the Red Cross will continue psychosocial work in the community in the form of regular events designed for children and parents and the elderly.

Speaking from her more than 30 years of experience, Yuki says: “What makes the most difference to people’s state of mind is if they are clear about the next steps.”

(Photo: 136 evacuees lived in this gymnasium at Kadowaki Junior High School. (c) Nobuyuki Kobayashi )