Conference snapshot: update on Japan

Masaharu Maeda was one of the keynote speakers of the European Conference on Traumatic Stress. He is the president of the Japanese Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and, not surprisingly, heavily involved in helping survivors of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March. Maeda provided some firsthand information about inhabitants’ losses, their reactions to the disaster, and current problems in the shelters.

According to the latest figures, about 15.000 people died and 10.000 people are missing. Because of this large number of missing people and the long and difficult process of retrieving and identifying bodies, many people are still uncertain about the fate of their loved ones. Almost all of them will have died, but there is no confirmation of their death, which makes it difficult to start to mourn; it puts the process of grieving ‘on hold’.

In addition, the retrieval and identification of bodies is very intense for the people who do it. They are exposed to an overwhelming number of dead bodies and wretched relatives, while working as quickly as possible. These ingredients are far from optimal for their own mental health and wellbeing.

Other groups of people Maeda was worried about concerned the inhabitants living close to the Fukushima plant (not only because of possible contamination but also because of stigmatization), elderly people, and (psychiatric) patients who lost their hospital or medical resources. One of his biggest concerns of the moment regarded suicides in the shelters, they are a clear indication of the high level of despair in some of these temporary homes.

Maeda’s aim is to provide early mental health interventions and to send out experts to affected regions for three years. As this is an enormous endeavor, funding is obviously an issue. Because of the large number of survivors involved and the probable lack of resources, I expect the models of training mental health professionals to train other (health) professionals will be key in providing enough capacity for this effort. Hopefully it will lead to substantial assistance in recovery of the community.

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