Mental care for children

Many schools in areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have started the new school year. Some schools, though, have no choice except to begin classes in early May because school buildings were damaged or were being used as temporary shelters for disaster survivors.

Good will has been pouring into schools in these areas. Some companies, universities and other organizations have offered to provide school supplies, books and items for physical education. Some local governments outside the impacted region are ready to dispatch teachers to schools in the affected areas.

At enrollment and opening ceremonies at schools in these areas, smiles were seen on the faces of children. But the horrifying experiences that many of them have undergone will not be forgotten soon. Some will need mental and emotional care.

It was their first time to have experienced tremors of this magnitude, and many had to flee a tsunami as it closed in. Not a few children lost their parents, other family members or friends. Many children additionally have gone through hardships at temporary shelters.

The loss of parents is the hardest experience for children. According to the health and welfare ministry, 110 children were reported to have lost both parents — 50 in Miyagi Prefecture, 44 in Iwate Prefecture and 16 in Fukushima Prefecture — as of April 19. This number may increase.

The loss of friends and teachers is also a hard experience. At Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, 74 children and 10 of the 13 teachers died or remain missing.

After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, more than 4,000 children were diagnosed as mentally unstable and needed some form of care, according to the Hyogo prefectural board of education. In July 1999, 4,105 children needed such care, only one less than in the previous year.

A survey even as late as 2004 showed that more than 1,300 of these children still showed signs of mental instability.

Psychological wounds do not heal in a short time. To prevent or alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, local governments in northeastern Japan need to provide a sufficient number of teachers and experts so that each child can receive enough support for a long time to come.