A group of psychiatrists who have been providing mental health support for foreign residents has set up an emergency committee to aid non-Japanese suffering from stress and trauma from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
“Those who are suffering the most are the elderly, children, the handicapped and foreigners. And foreigners are particularly prone to become isolated, suffer from a lack of information in their mother tongue, easily become confused by false rumors and suffer from growing anxiety,” said Fumitaka Noda, president of the Japanese Society of Transcultural Psychiatry and professor of psychiatry at Taisho University in Tokyo.
“It’s really important to provide them with accurate information, and then to listen and understand their anxiety,” said Noda, who has been providing mental health care services to foreigners in Japan for 18 years, especially to refugees.
Comprised of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, the transcultural psychiatry society established the Transcultural Mental Health Emergency committee March 19 to help foreigners directly affected by 3/11.
As the only medical society in Japan that focuses on studies of foreigners who have mental health issues due to transcultural problems, the society is working closely with groups that support foreigners, including the Japan Foundation, to continue gathering information on people in need of professional help. It is also planning to teach supporters basic knowledge of mental health, so that when they spot signs of depression or posttraumatic stress disorder they can contact Noda and his colleagues.
Mental health care has become more important as people recover from the initial shock of the disaster and gradually start to get a clear picture of what happened and what situation they are in, Noda explained.
“As people start to look around, they begin to feel more clearly the sense of loss, and anxiety over the future. . . . Some may develop PTSD,” Noda said. “Many suffer from numbness. Because they lost everything they had and they begin to wonder about the meaning of making an effort, making a commitment or loving someone.”
If such cases continue over a long period, then people need to seek professional help, Noda said.
As part of his preparation to aid foreigners, Noda also went to Soma in Fukushima Prefecture, just outside the 30-km zone around the crippled nuclear plant, at the end of March.
What struck him was the lack of mental health professionals on hand. “There were hospitals but no psychiatric facilities in the surrounding area. . . . So many psychiatric patients were suffering from a lack of medication,” Noda said.
Although there is now a hastily set up psychiatric unit in a local hospital, more help from mental care professionals is still needed, said Noda, who visited shelters in the city and listened to peoples’ stories and concerns.
“People were under huge stress. Some said they can’t sleep and some said their children were crying and screaming every night and had no idea what to do,” he said.
“They are just like refugees. They have to decide whether they are going back to their hometown or moving to a new place at some point in the future. Their lives are now unstable, and they can do nothing about it,” Noda said. “If this situation continues, many may develop depression.”
After witnessing people’s mental states in Fukushima, Noda worries about foreigners living under similar conditions.
“In this kind of situation, a foreigner’s stress can be more than that of Japanese. We have to spend twice the time we do for Japanese to treat foreigners. We need to listen to their voices wholeheartedly,” Noda said, adding he and his team are ready for action, to help foreigners with mental problems.
“I want people to know there are services available to them. Many may hesitate to ask for mental support, but please, be open about it and contact us,” Noda said.
E-mail Transcultural_mental_health@yahoo.co.jp or call Fumitaka Noda at (080) 5196-8325 or fax (03) 5225-1292.