Disaster and Mental Health Care: Don’t Overlook Signs of Psychological Stress

Those who have experienced a major disaster are susceptible to mental health problems. One month has passed since the Noto Peninsula Earthquake struck, and survivors’ fatigue has been building up in the aftermath. Support that pays heed to mental health care is essential.

The Noto Peninsula Earthquake has caused tremendous damage. The death toll stands at 240 and more than 50,000 houses have collapsed or been damaged. More than 10,000 affected people are still living as evacuees, including those in secondary evacuation locations outside the affected areas.

The shock to those who had terrible experiences or lost family members as a result of the earthquake and tsunami is great. Anxiety about their future lives is also a mental burden. They may also feel the stress of living in evacuation centers where it is difficult to protect their privacy.

It is hoped that the construction of temporary housing and other environmental improvements will be hastened so that the disaster victims can live with peace of mind as soon as possible.

Mental health care experts, including psychiatrists from the Disaster Psychiatric Assistance Team, have been dispatched to the affected areas. It is important for the central and local governments to cooperate with medical organizations, volunteers and others to establish a long-term support system for the prolonged evacuation period.

It is said that now is a time when the confusion immediately following the disaster gradually begins to subside, and people in the affected areas tend to feel depressed as they come to more keenly realize the severity of the damage.

Some people with prolonged mental health problems may develop depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, which has symptoms such as sudden recollections of fearful experiences. It is necessary not to miss the signs of such mental health problems.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the Ishikawa prefectural government are providing on their websites information on mental health care for the disaster victims and their supporters. A telephone consultation service has also been set up. Hopefully the ministry and the prefectural government will publicize these measures sufficiently and encourage people to utilize them.

Mental health care for children affected by the disaster is also essential. An elementary school in the northern part of the Noto Peninsula, which was hit hard by the disaster, conducted a questionnaire survey and found that about 10% of the children needed attention.

Teachers and others with experience of major disasters in Kumamoto and Hyogo prefectures have been dispatched to schools to provide care. It is necessary to pass on their know-how to the teachers in the Noto region and to continue to protect the mental health of the children.

There are also elderly people who have left their familiar surroundings for secondary evacuation sites. It will be vital for local government officials and others providing support to keep in touch with these elderly people so that they do not become isolated in unfamiliar places. It is also essential to provide opportunities for evacuees to interact with each other.

The importance of providing mental health care during disasters has been recognized since the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, when a number of disaster victims reported mental health problems. It is important to remember to support disaster victims from both physical and mental perspectives.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 7, 2024)