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Monday, March 26, 2012

Mental Health After Disasters

I'll be honest... I had an idea of what I wanted to ask when I thought of this topic.... but it appears to have become bogged down in a lot of questions and points. I wrote this piece several weeks ago just prior to the one-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Basically... with a series of disasters... can a country adequately cope? But... I'm talking beyond finances or the physical. I'm talking about the mental.

This blog will not provide any data or solutions. I simply don't have any to give to you.

I'm just going to lay out some thoughts.

While I have my own ups and downs typical of the average Joe or Joseph, I do not suffer from various forms of anxiety, clinical depression, trauma, bi-polar or schizophrenia or anything like that.

In fact, most people - including myself - consider me to be quite level-headed (almost flat, even) when it comes to dealing with stressful situations in my day-to-day life.

If they only knew.

Still, we all have our own cross to bear.

Mental illness, however, is visible within my immediate family and amongst my mother's side - though my mother and father, brother and myself seem to have escaped.

But I have become exposed to it. Friends, family, co-workers - it verily boggles my mind to see just how many people have had a breakdown or are on medication for one mental illness or another.

While I would never claim to be an expert on the subject, having had it thrust upon me in my day-to-day dealings has allowed me some keen insight into it.

As a writer, I like learning about new things. Often I discover that while I thought I knew nothing on a topic - say architecture - I seem to posses some knowledge or at least have an opinion on everything.

It's why learning about mental illness years ago has been, for lack of a better term, 'interesting'.

It's cool because it's something new and exciting for me to learn about, but as a human being, it's sad because I have learned just how much people have suffered, are suffering or will suffer from mental illness - not to mention those who have to deal with the aftermath of mental illness.

People always seem to forget about the people who have to pick up the pieces after mental illness kicks the door down. It often kicks more than one door down.

I was curious to discover just how the people of Japan are coping after the multitude of disasters kicked it in the proverbial nuts in 2011 through now.

To be honest... there isn't a lot of information out there.

Either its too soon, or its a topic in which it's difficult to glean information.

Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife continues to present stories from my own life 20 years ago in Japan in which I was stalked by a gorgeous woman who only wanted sex... which might not seem like a bad thing, but besides forcing me to go without sleep for days, she wanted to drop out of university just to be with me. Again... nothing overly wrong with that - except I wouldn't want someone to do that for me... there was nothing wrong with us seeing each other... but the stalking...  to read about that steamy affair, do a blog search for "Junko"

I have also written about how robot seals are being used to provide comfort to senior citizens affected by the triple disasters: HERE but it has been tough to find some solid data on the emotional well-being of the Japanese person affected by the events of March 11.

But it's not just about March 11. It's the damage it has caused.

Whether it was the 9.0 Magnitude earthquake. The devastating tsunami. The clouds of radiation being spewed into the air, water and ground. Unemployment. Loss of home, family members, income. A crappy economy. Living in makeshift housing.... Japan has gone through the proverbial ringer for quite a while now.

And while bloggers and journalists everywhere concentrate on easily measurable or quantifiable things, I want to know not only what Japan is thinking, but how it is thinking.

I want to know what the mental health issues are like for people after months upon bloody months of what I would assume to be despair.

The first thing we have to realize - and again, this is merely my own humble opinion, is that the Japanese are not like others in the so-called first-world society.

It's a broad statement to be sure. Yes, they put their pants on one leg at a time. They fall in love. Some have kids. Get a job. Try to survive and have a good time doing so. All with various degrees of success... Sounds like my life here in Toronto, Canada.

But they are different. the most telling thing that shows that was the way Japan conducted itself after the earthquake, tsunami and near-nuclear meltdowns.

Yeah there was panic. Of course there was. Despite Japan's seeming love-affair in creating robots, the Japanese people are not robotic! But I did notice that despite the crap going on around them, there was no breakdown of societal rules. There was no murdering for food or water. No riots breaking out. None of that crap.

What was observed by others closer to the country was a people looking out for others.
And this is from a country where mentally ill people who have committed crimes are routinely executed (see my blog HERE)!

Enough hot air. Let's get to the crux of this blog's point.

After the radiation exposure many Japanese people had, there still hasn't been any health fallout amongst the people - though it is rumored that a few of the Fukushima 50 nuclear plant cleaners took some pretty damn heavy does of radiation and, are sick or have died.

Yes, as the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power generating facility nearly had three meltdowns, some radiation was released - about 1/10th of what was released from the worst nuclear accident yet - Chernobyl.

But, most of the radiation released was blown out over the Pacific Ocean and not over populated areas—though one large radiation cloud reportedly did blow inland, up toward the northwest causing most of the 170,000 residents in the area to be quickly evacuated.

Food and milk products were quickly quarantined and tested as well... so very little was distributed for public consumption.

With all of the concerns about radiation poisoning being vaild concerns, people tend to forget about the toll... the stress, if you will, of the constant bombardment not of radiated nucleii, but of the feelings of angst, anxiety, hopelessness, depression and despair of being in a situation that does not seem to be improving for you - either quick enough, or at all.

Granted Japan got as many kids back into the routine of school as quickly as possible. Excellent. Kids need structure. They also need time to grieve, but how much or how little is appropriate? Some kids move on (generally-speaking) after a week, while others are emotionally crippled for months or years.
Crap happens. Yes. But is Japan ready for the fallout of mental health issues that are sure to arise from the soggy ashes of March 11, 2011? I hope so. I really do.

But I don't think the real damage from the March 11 disasters is going to be seen or fully understood for a long, long time.

If at all.

Mental illness is often a lonely thing. People rarely tell friends or family for fear of being abandoned or thought of as damaged. In Japan, could that image be even worse? As a society Japan follows the old adage that: "The nail that stands up gets hammered down". It means don't stick out for being different.

It's why I wonder if we shall ever know how Japan copes with the real aftermath of this and other disasters.

If anyone out there has any data on mental health in Japan or even more specifically on Japan after the March 11 disasters, please pass it along.

While numbers are fine, I am more interested in knowing just what it is that Japan is doing for those who suffer in quiet agony.

Andrew Joseph


  1. Must agree that it is going to take a while to feel the effects and for them to work their way through the humanity chain. I was just visiting with a Isseiki (1st gen American) that is married to a high school friend of mine, and he said his mother died of cancer a few years ago from Nagasaki radiation fall out (she was then what we would call now a "first responder") as well as some members of his family still living in Japan in / around Nagasaki still are coming down with odd forms of cancer that dr's attribute to bad genes passed down from relatives living in that are 60 years ago.

  2. PS - if some have "Crosses to Bear" what do Buddhist have to bear???

  3. Buddhists bear having to sit under a Boddhi tree - which ain't so bad.

  4. Hi Andrew,

    "If anyone out there has any data on mental health in Japan or even more specifically on Japan after the March 11 disasters, please pass it along."

    Hope these few links, which are by no means a comprehensive representation of the psychosocial support and Japan mental health professional associations responses and mental health care programs and services put into effect in post 3.11 year 1, will be of some use to your readers. Thanks for caring about the mental health of the Japan 3D disasters survivors, displaced and evacuees. The year 2 and longer trem work we so and the services we provide will need all the social, economic and media focus on suitable and culturally sensitive support for these wounded communities as well as individual and group mental health care for those individuals and families who have suffered the most and endured extreme stress and setbacks as they try to move on with their lives. Thank you for helping to keep the spotlights of these hundreds of thousands of people for whom the effects and stresses of the 3D disasters is unfortunately far from over.

    In the past year, from the outset to now, a great number of the over 100,000 Japan licensed mental health care professionals (such as over 14,000 psychiatrists, over 52,000 Psychiatric Social Workers and over 21,000 JSCCP Clinical Psychologists and Nurses, among others, have been deeply involved working and providing psycho-social first aid, medical and counseling support to survivors and evacuees both in the East Japan (Tohoku) Region and here in Tokyo and the Kanto Region. Perhaps you would kindly consider giving them due credit in your press releases on the internet. For examples:

    Giving voice to trauma-hit victims:
    Friday, April 22, 2011

    Mental health center for children in disaster zone:
    Thursday, October 27, 2011 12:45 +0900 (JST)

    Association of Japanese Clinical Psychology - International Symposium on Trauma Recovery and PTSD Prevention - Tokyo University 10/10/2011

    I would also like to suggest, with respect, that consideration could be given to making clear that in Japan on your website and all your NGOs and volunteers that in Japan only a Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour nationally licensed medical doctor/psychiatrist is allowed to assess the presence of symptoms of PTSD, diagnose and provide therapy and treat PTSD and it takes a trained, credentialed, supervised and experienced mental health professional in Japan to recognize symptoms of trauma and PTSD. If someone is diagnosed with PTSD then the medical treatment and prescription of medications to alleviate and treat PTSD can only be given by a psychiatrist or medical doctor. For an ordinary member of the public to do so is illegal in Japan. Thank you in advance for your kind consideration of these points.

    Also you readers here may be interested to read the following article from the New Scientist that details the approach of mental health professionals in Japan to aid and assist the disasters survivors and evacuees psychological recovery from their traumatic experiences:

    To avoid PTSD, no debrief for Japan's quake survivors:
    1 November 2011

    Kind regards from Tokyo,

    Tokyo Counseling Services