Tohoku mental health care

As the cleanup of the physical wreckage from the Tohoku disasters continues, more work is needed to heal psychological wounds. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry announced plans in early September to set up mental health care centers for children who lost parents in the March 11 disasters. In August, Fukushima Medical University reported plans for a mental health care center in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. These centers should be fully supported and funded so that services can become available as soon as possible.

The need for better mental health services throughout the Tohoku region is pressing. Long after homes and schools are rebuilt and the rubble cleaned up, the effects of the disasters will linger in the minds of survivors. For the elderly and for young people especially, the need for psychological support is critical. Nearly 1,500 children lost one or both parents in the disasters. Without timely and consistent care, their mental health could deteriorate. Elderly people whose lives have been irrevocably shattered need special attention as well.

Unfortunately, with only 300 child psychiatrists in Japan, child counseling centers are suffering from staff shortages. Exacerbating the situation, three out of the four hospitals with psychiatric units around the Fukushima No. 1 nucleaer power plant were forced to shut down because they were within the evacuation zone. Finding funds and locations for new centers must be given special emphasis.

In the short run, though, services will have to be mobile. Transportation in the Tohoku region is still difficult and health professionals will need to go to patients for now. Consistency is also important for psychiatric treatment, so centers for inpatient and outpatient care must be centrally located so patients can return as the need arises. The increase of problems resulting from 3/11 disasters, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, mean more facilities and caregivers than ever are needed in the area.

Mental health has long been a somewhat embarrassing issue throughout Japanese society. Now is the time to get over that kind of hesitation and shame. The resilient, forbearing attitude of Tohoku people in the post-disaster chaos made an impression around the world. Now, practical solutions for people needing medical treatment, medicine and services in the Tohoku area are urgent. The government should increase its support for these services and help to facilitate the establishment of more mental health centers immediately.