Two years on, new psychological stresses emerge amongst survivors of Japan’s triple disaster


By Francis Markus

Two years after Japan’s triple – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, new psychological stresses are arising amongst some of the 300,000 displaced survivors, particularly children and elderly people.

Most children who survived the earthquake and tsunami are making a good psychological recovery. “What we are seeing is a scissor split, with most of the children getting better, but a small number of more serious cases emerging,” says child psychiatrist Dr Junko Yagi, who is based in one of the worst affected prefectures, Iwate. She estimates that while some 80 per cent of cases are improving, some 20 per cent are getting worse.

Stress of moving forward

“Some patients are only now starting to develop dissociation and depression symptoms. They seem to be actively moving forward with their lives but in reality, they are in a state of hyper-arousal. They are tired and exhausted.”

Dr Yagi’s approach combines play therapy for the children and more psychological sensitisation for their families. She is also one of the key figures in the process of setting up a centre for children’s mental health care in the Iwate Medical University in Morioka, which will be financially supported by the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Not just children

But children are not the only ones experiencing the psychological impact of prolonged displacement. While businesses and institutions are gradually being re-established, lack of consensus among the various stakeholders and difficulty in finding suitable land are making the reconstruction of permanent housing a slow process. Some people are giving up on it altogether and leaving for other parts of Japan where prospects may be better.

“This year we’ve seen signs of depression emerging amongst a number of people living in temporary shelters,” said Takeshi Ino, Director of JRCS’ Miyagi chapter. “This is because they see others around them starting new lives, finding jobs or moving on from their prefabricated homes. They feel trapped and uneasy about their own future.”

A large percentage of people living in prefabricated housing are elderly. To prevent them from sinking into inactivity and isolation, the Japanese Red Cross is conducting a broad programme of activities including physical exercise, massage and health checks and events such as as tea ceremonies to help build a sense of community.

Fukushima aftermath

The aftermath of the nuclear accident in Fukushima has also brought new issues to the fore. Prompted by media reports, government officials have recently disclosed that decontamination has not been properly carried out in a number of places in the prefecture,
“This makes people both furious and sad, because we feel that our concerns are not being understood,” said Fukushima Red Cross Chapter Deputy Director General Takeyoshi Saito.

As part of its commitment to improve preparedness around nuclear disasters, the Red Cross plans to open a nuclear disaster information centre to gather together data and best practices. Red Cross nurses are also providing health monitoring and psychological support to the displaced survivors of some of the worst-affected areas, such as those from the town of Namie, which is one of the closest to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. From next year the Red Cross will be involved in screening youngsters under 18 years of age for thyroid cancer.

Mixed picture

Taken as a whole, “the picture in the three worst-affected areas is a very mixed one, with a certain amount of real progress being made, but also a feeling that many people, especially the elderly and the young remain in a vulnerable state of mind, so we need to give them our continued support in a variety of ways,” said Japanese Red Cross and IFRC president, Tadateru Konoe.

From the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when its medical teams treated nearly 90,000 survivors, the Japanese Red Cross has played a key role in caring for the displaced. Using funds donated through Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies worldwide, it has provided more than 135,000 families in temporary accommodation with a package of electrical appliances. As well as rebuilding over 5 key hospitals and clinics, JRCS has also provided extensive support to schools and institutions caring for the elderly.