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About 165,000 people in Fukushima Prefecture were forced to relocate after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami due to damage to buildings and homes as well as concerns over the fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster.

Although the number of people still living away from their homes is on the decline, about 36,000 people are still unable to return, and many of them are worried about their bleak prospects, including dying alone.

In a meeting room at a public housing complex in Koriyama, residents were chatting over tea about their health problems and what was on sale at a nearby supermarket.

It has been five years since the construction of the public housing unit, which is home to 128 survivors of the disaster. Many of the residents are from one- or two-person households evacuated from the towns and villages of Okuma, Futaba, Namie and Tomioka.

After it was completed, a residents organization was formed to maintain community ties and improve the living environment. Aiming to foster increased interactions between residents, get-togethers and seasonal events are hosted on a regular basis, including sewing classes and tea time twice a week after exercise sessions.

“These small conversations help relieve the stress,” said Satoko Yoshida, 66, who heads the residents organization.

However, not everyone interacts so easily with neighbors. In the spring of 2018, a man in his 60s living alone in the complex was found dead in his room. He hadn’t been participating in the community activities.

“It’s difficult to take care of those who cannot integrate into the community,” said Yoshida.

To prevent a recurrence, the residents organization made a new system through which the group head got hold of residents’ contact numbers.

“Though the burden and responsibility of senior members are increasing, we want to cooperate with each other and continue on with the system,” said Yoshida. “The risk of solitary death will increase as more of the residents become elderly. I hope to continue paying close attention to minimize the risk.”

Ten years on, survivors still suffer from the traumatic experience they went through, and a change of environment adds to the stress over time, said Shinji Taira, vice head of the Fukushima Center for Disaster Mental Health, an organization established by the prefecture that supports those affected.

The center consists of its headquarters and six branches in the prefecture. Nurses, public health officials and social workers offer care through visits and phone calls.

While the situation has improved to some extent, the longer the evacuated are away from home, the more issues emerge, putting extra stress on residents. According to the center, the number of people who sought help from it was 568 in fiscal 2019, down from 1,617 in fiscal 2014. But the number of times the center was contacted remained at a similar level in fiscal 2019 compared with fiscal 2014, at 6,157 versus 6,666.

The nature of their troubles has varied over the years. Immediately after March 2011, the majority of cases had to do with loss and stress related to the disaster, including complaints about temporary housings and the anxiety over financial prospects.

But after more people moved back to their hometowns or moved to public housing for disaster victims, their problems became more about loneliness and relationship troubles with neighbors.

Young people were also among those turning to these consultation services. For those in their 20s and 30s, their distress often do not surface until key life events, such as enrollment at new schools, getting a job or giving birth.

In partnership with local social welfare councils, the prefecture and its municipalities are offering support to residents through home visits.

Nevertheless, local government support in areas that received evacuees may not be that thorough, as municipal offices have in many cases transferred back to their original location or moved to another place, making it hard to keep an eye on each of the residents.

Residents are not the only ones suffering from distress. Municipal officials in affected areas are also starting to suffer stress, Taira said.

As the local government offices from disaster-hit areas return, officials need to commute from the places they have evacuated to, or have been feeling lonely living apart from their family so they can be close to the office.

These stresses, however, when played down, could possibly lead to detrimental consequences. In Fukushima Prefecture, deaths caused by poor health and overwork stemming from the evacuations had reached 2,316 as of Feb. 5.

That number stands out when compared with neighboring prefectures, such as 470 in Iwate and 929 in Miyagi. The reason is thought to be the long-term evacuation forced by the nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Disaster-related suicides in the prefecture have reached 108 since March 2011, including three in 2020.

“Their problems are likely to diversify in the coming 10 to 20 years. Relevant institutions need to share detailed information with one another in order to tackle the issue,” said Taira.

This section features topics and issues covered by Fukushima Minpo, the prefecture’s largest newspaper. The original article was published March 3.

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