After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan kept people safe from the physical effects of radiation — but not from the psychological impacts.
Researchers and clinicians are trying to assess and mitigate the problems, but it is unclear whether the Japanese government has the will, or the money, to provide the necessary support. Nor is it certain that the evacuees will accept any help, given their distrust of the government and their reluctance to discuss mental problems. This combination, researchers fear, could drive up rates of anxiety, substance abuse and depression.
The nuclear evacuees face a more difficult future than the survivors of the tsunami, which left nearly 20,000 dead or missing and caused billions of dollars in damage. “The tsunami-area people seem to be improving; they have more positive attitudes about the future,” says Hirooki Yabe, a neuropsychiatrist at Fukushima Medical University, who has been working with both groups. Nuclear evacuees “are becoming more depressed day by day”.
Mental health has been a major component of the survey. In January 2012, researchers sent out questionnaires to all 210,000 evacuees to assess their stress and anxiety. The levels tabulated among the more than 91,000 respondents were “quite high”, says Yuriko Suzuki, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Tokyo. Roughly 15% of adults showed signs of extreme stress, five times the normal rate, and one in five showed signs of mental trauma — a rate similar to that in first responders to the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States. A survey of children, filled out by their parents, showed stress levels about double the Japanese average.
The stress has pushed some evacuees to breaking point. On a crisp day last November, Kenji Ookubo wandered through Iitate, a village 40 kilometres northwest of the plant, practising his golf swings in the empty streets. The town had been evacuated after the accident because it lay in the path of the plume of radiation blowing away from the plant. But Ookubo couldn’t stand the temporary housing, where he had started drinking and suffered from stomach aches. After renting a room in Kawamata, he began squatting in his parents’ abandoned home. “I came back just to run away from the stress,” he says. With no job, and no prospects, “I can’t see the future,” he says.
Read more at Fukushima: Fallout of fear