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Red Cross Is Helping to Heal Japan's Emotional Wounds

Japanese Red Cross psychosocial workers have provided counseling support to more than 6,000 people in the Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Tomoko Higashi, the head of the psychosocial program at Japanese Red Cross in Tokyo, said the impact of the disaster was affecting different people in different ways.

“The people in the north east in the Iwate and Miyagi prefectures lost loved ones, homes (and) their jobs,” she said. “They are dealing with issues such as grief and loss, sadness (and) depression. The homes in the Fukushima prefecture were not as badly affected by the earthquake and tsunami. The people from that area are in evacuation centers because of the radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. They are angry. They don’t know when or if they will be able to return to their homes.”

Higashi said elderly people and children particularly were having a difficult time with the emotions.

“The risk for elderly people is not only psychological but also physical,” she said. “These areas had a high proportion of elderly people and many of them are now in evacuation centers. Their physical ability, their mobility, has dropped down quite a bit because they are not walking around as much. Some are starting to become immobile.”

She suggested it will take a significant rehabilitation program to get them walking again. Once they are walking again their mental health will also improve, Higashi predicted.

“We tell parents that their children may go back to behaving like a baby and that this is a normal reaction for children after an emergency or disaster and that they (parents) should accept this behavior,” she added.

Higashi said it was vital, where possible, to keep communities intact.

“The lesson we’ve learned from previous disasters and the Kobe earthquake is that it is important to maintain communities, to evacuate people together, to try and keep them together in the same evacuation center or temporary housing village. And it’s important for these evacuation places to have a communal space where people can come together.”

Looking ahead to recovery, Higashi noted that while rebuilding has begun, it will take years to heal the survivors’ emotional wounds.

“Compared with last month, I can start to see that recovery is starting to happen, that many more prefabricated houses are being built and people are moving out of evacuation centers,” she said. “But in relation to the emotions, the sorrow and sadness, this will never completely disappear. It is 16 years since the Kobe earthquake. But still on the anniversary of that disaster many people still cry, some collapse in tears. There is a lot of sadness still there. Over time, the sadness can and does lighten, the burden eases, but it never completely disappears.”

How the Red Cross Is Helping

To date, the American Red Cross has contributed more than $163 million toward the disaster response in Japan, and plans to make additional donations as pledges are fulfilled. We expect that our contributions to the Japanese Red Cross will support more than half of its planned relief and recovery activities, which includes:

  • Improving the living conditions for people in evacuation centers and temporary homes being constructed by the government;
  • Rebuilding of a temporary hospital in Ishinomaki City, the strengthening of the region’s only remaining critical care facility and the future construction of a permanent nursing school; and
  • Restoration of social welfare programs for the elderly and children, including nursing care, transportation and summer camp scholarships.