Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Japanese Crisis: Assessing the Need Stateside

The attention of most of the country continues to be across the Pacific in Japan. The loss of life is horrific. The material damage is enormous. The fear regarding the radiation in Fukushima is mounting.

Now is not the time for a psychological crisis intervention in Japan. The situation is still unfolding, and there are still significant basic physical and safety needs to be met. The best that can be done from a mental health standpoint in Japan right now is managing people's fear. Both the Prime Minister and the Emperor appear, from this vantage point, to be doing a pretty good job at exercising resilient leadership. The consistent emphasis on coming together and getting through this is good practice.

What about folks in the U.S.? Is there anything we can or should be doing for people here? I think there is.

First of all, everyone in the world needs some decent information about the radiation risk. With the exception of nuclear scientists, most of us have very little understanding of how much radiation is too much, how the current accident will affect people in Japan and whether it will affect anyone anywhere else at all. The news media is doing a somewhat better job of bringing in experts to explain this to us, but I think it would help if they acknowledged that none of us like hearing that there's any radiation at all, and that the biggest impact here is from fear, not nuclear byproducts.

People here who have family and close friends in Japan, particularly in the area where the quake and tsunami were, need something a little more. I think you could further separate that group into two -- those who come from Japan and have roots there, and those who don't trace their roots to Japan but have family studying or visiting there. Last Friday was ghastly for both of these groups, and it would not be surprising if they're feeling the affects even now, presuming that they now know how their loved ones fared in the quake.

For those who come from Japan, this incident is not, in some ways, over. The pictures the rest of us see and think are horrible are more personal. They may have lost homes or other special places. They may not be ready, yet, to process through their feelings and try to put them away.

For those who had family visiting or living in Japan but are not themselves Japanese, the incident is largely over and they are probably ready for some intervention. It would be totally understandable if they are having some issues with feeling irritable, having trouble concentrating, not sleeping well or having intrusive thoughts about the quake and the agonizing wait to hear from loved ones. They need to know they're normal -- it's the situation that isn't.

Then there is that group that is somewhere in a no man's land in between. They are from Japan, every picture is personal, the situation is ongoing, and they also experienced the traumatic death of someone they love. For them, some understanding and moral support is in order until the dust can settle a little more and they can start to come to terms with all of this.

I wrote yesterday about my son's friend, Taro. When I wrote, I wasn't sure which category Taro fell into. Late yesterday we confirmed that he is in this last category. He lost his grandmother and his home. The only bright side, perhaps, is that young children don't really understand death and loss as permanent things. But his family does, like so many other families in Japan, here and elsewhere. The latest estimate I've heard is 10,000 dead. That's a lot of people in limbo, waiting for this to be over so they can grieve.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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