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Local governments and experts are tackling the issue of isolation, which lies behind many mental health problems afflicting people in areas of northeastern Japan damaged by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The message is clear: Those who look well may not be. Attention needs to be paid to any sign of mental disorder to prevent the condition from worsening.

In the town of Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, the local social welfare council watches over people living in permanent housing for displaced survivors with 14 assistance staff. A majority of the 708 households have one or more older members.

The staff visit the homes of residents regularly and give consultations at community meeting rooms.

“The population is aging further, and many tend to have sudden changes in health conditions,” said Fukumi Abe, a 58-year-old staff member.

Local public health official Naoko Sato, 49, says it is important to rebuild the relations of mutual aid among residents that existed before the disaster. As well as utilizing assistance workers like Abe, the town is asking disaster survivors themselves to watch over their neighbors.

In Miyagi Prefecture, the number of consultations provided by mental health care centers in fiscal 2019 stood at 5,964. In the neighboring prefectures of Iwate and Fukushima, also hit hard by the disaster, the number came to 7,611 and 6,157, respectively.

Although the figures are down from their peaks, they remain high even 10 years after the disaster. Reported mental health problems are diverse, including depression, sleep disorder and alcohol addiction.

Mental health care center Nagomi, which covers the Fukushima cities of Soma and Minamisoma, is working to resolve the issue of isolation. Starting in fiscal 2015, the center holds a cooking session for men with alcohol addiction and other problems once or twice a month.

“Loneliness and low self-esteem are behind alcohol-related problems. Some manage to reduce alcohol consumption by joining gatherings held for a common purpose,” said Kazuma Yonekura, 47, head of Nagomi.

Shigeru Watanabe, 66, a cooking session participant from three years ago, lost his job due to the disaster and got divorced.

When he first visited Nagomi, he had given up on life. He did not care if he lived or died. But his mental health improved after he established relationships of trust with staff.

Watanabe said he still drinks every day and that his diet is terrible. “I only eat well when I attend the session,” he said.

At first, Nagomi “was my only connection with society, and it really helped me,” said Watanabe, whose goal is to find a job by next month and rebuild his life.

“Symptoms are prolonged for those who underwent severe experiences, and it’s difficult for them to recover in 10 years,” said Kotaro Otsuka, vice head of the Iwate prefectural mental health care center.

Otsuka called for continuous support to help ease disaster survivors’ stress, which stems from health problems and unstable lives.

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