Psychosocial support for people evacuated from Fukushima radiation zone

Published 2 June 2011 15:00 CET (Central European Time):

The Japanese Red Cross (JRC) is providing psychological support to people evacuated from the 30km exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to a hotel in Tokyo.

JRC psychologist Keiko Akiyama is one of a number of Tokyo prefecture government and agency psychologists, mental health experts, social welfare officers and public officials working at an evacuation centre at the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka in the heart of Tokyo’s government and business district in the Chiyoda area.

The 40-storey glass tower, once a feature of the international chain of Prince hotels and resorts, had been vacant since its closure in late March.

Following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the Tokyo prefecture government reopened it as an evacuation centre for people caught in the exclusion zone around the crippled nuclear plant. Some 800 people, including many women and children, were moved to the hotel from April 19.

People caught in the radiation zone around the crippled nuclear power plant have been evacuated

Ms Akiyama is at the hotel every Tuesday and Thursday, available to speak with anyone wanting support or advice.

“This is a unique situation,” she said. “I have never worked in a situation like this before, where people have been moved because of a nuclear risk and don’t know when – or if – they will be able to return to their homes.

“Some people are angry and some people aren’t. There are a number of people here who worked for TEPCO (the nuclear plant operator and Japan’s biggest energy and utilities company) and many people realise that it’s a difficult situation on a number of levels.

“A woman who gave birth to a baby in April was worried about the radiation but was also upset that this important event for her and her family was not able to occur in their home town.”

Ms Akiyama said that it was common for people to try to cope by not thinking about the future and what it may hold.

“If this is their way of coping right now, their reaction at this time, then it is best not to interfere too much with this coping mechanism, but to support them and be there for them. It’s important that they know we’re here if they need us.”

A man in his 70s said his house in Iwaki in Fukushima prefecture was outside the 30km exclusion zone but was damaged by the earthquake.

“I can’t get it repaired straight away because there is a shortage of carpenters and materials,” he said.

I have never worked in a situation like this before where people have been moved because of a nuclear risk

“But as soon as it’s repaired I will go back there. I am not worrying about the radiation. I am an elderly man. What can it do to me at this stage of my life. But I feel sorry for the families with children.”

Ms Akiyama said some people, to help pass the time, were volunteering to help out in nearby nursing homes.

“Sometimes people in this type of situation find that they need to support someone else,” she said. “This energises them, makes them feel better and helps them get through their own situation.”

A Japanese Red Cross medical team is also visiting the centre, checking on elderly people in their rooms.

“Some elderly people are not walking as much as they normally do in their home town because they are a bit afraid of walking around the streets of Tokyo as they don’t know the area and are not used to it,” Ms Akiyama said.

The government plans to move the people out of the hotel at the end of June but it is not known at this stage where they will go.

First published IFRC website. Author Mike Smith.

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