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Mental Fallout: The Real Health Consequence in Japan

Japan Radiation Screening

Medical staff use a Geiger counter to screen a woman for possible radiation exposure at a public welfare centre in Hitachi City, Ibaraki, March 16, 2011, after she evacuated from an area within 20km (12.4 miles) radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The woman was tested negative for radiation exposure. Radiation has been released into the atmosphere at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. on the country's northeast coast, which was badly damaged after a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11.Reuters

First, Japan was hit with the biggest and most destructive earthquake ever recorded in the country, triggering a massive tsunami that wiped out everything in its path. And now, if that wasn’t unimaginable enough, a damaged nuclear plant is spewing radiation into the atmosphere.

It seems like a nightmare that won’t go away. There have been fresh explosions from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, nearly 150 miles north of Tokyo, almost on a daily basis, and people are either being evacuated or being told to stay indoors.

Evelyn Bromet, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stony Brook University in New York, who did ground-breaking studies on both the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, spoke to FoxNews.com about the mental fallout from this series of catastrophic events.

Q. How are the Japanese people going to deal with all of this – how are they going to survive mentally?

A. “We thought Haiti was unprecedented and Chernobyl – but this is three catastrophes in one – actually it’s even more because now we have hundreds of thousands of people that are homeless. Just think of the mental health consequences – it’s going to be very drawn out and very long-term. Of course, at first, the immediate needs are around safety issues, but I think if people are clearly panicked, and people will clearly show signs of that, then I think physicians need to deal with that right off the bat. I will say what is really important is that physicians treat mental health issues with as much care and respect as physical health issues.”

Q. You did ground-breaking studies on Three Mile Island (1979 in Pennsylvania) and then Chernobyl (1986 in Ukraine) – what have we learned from those disasters?

A. “I think we’ve learned several lessons from both of them. One, it’s not helpful when officials from various agencies are not honest with the population about what is going on, and that is what happened in both of these situations. It’s also not helpful when media reports contradictory information about how much radiation was leaked. When this happens they destroy the public’s trust in authorities, and ultimately it’s the authorities that have to deal with the clean-up and the resolution. The last thing you want to do is to destroy this trust – and that’s what happened in the Three Mile Island incident as well as Chernobyl. The solution to this is for the government to be truthful right away.”

Q. What can Japan learn from those disasters?

A. “They will learn that the mental health consequences are enormous, and that these are long-term issues. So whatever intervention they develop in Japan for handling acute stress reactions – they are also going to have to consider how they are going to handle the stress response in the long-term – because when people think they’ve been exposed to radiation, their health-related anxiety does not go away easily. It’s not something we can see, and we don’t know enough scientifically for a physician to say to someone that they’ll never have anything to worry about, or their child will never have anything to worry about, which can lead to long-term anxiety.”

Q. Making sure people with mental health issues are not stigmatized is also very important as well – right?

A. “Yes, because I think part of what happened after Chernobyl was that people who were evacuated were highly stigmatized – people were scared of them. They thought they were contaminated and that they could contaminate other people. They were not accepted. No one wanted to play with their kids.”

Q. What kind of emotional issues usually crop up after disasters like this?

A. “The three big ones are anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. What’s unique about this is the health-related anxiety due to the radiation. The issue isn’t how much radiation was leaked – it’s the fact that radiation was leaked. It’s one of the biggest fears of all time. In Japan, this is occurring in the context of so many horrific things that health-related anxiety could take on an even larger position.”

Q. What can be done to prevent the emotional trauma from spinning out of control?

A. “I think education interventions are extremely helpful, but they need to be done repeatedly. The role of the primary care doctors is also extremely important. Conditions such as anxiety and depression may persist, and it’s very important that these are taken seriously. I also think that ultimately, the people of Japan need to hear that they haven’t been forgotten by the world. Just look at Haiti. It doesn’t even make the news anymore.”

Q. Ten years down the road – what kind of state do you expect Japan be in?

A. Most people are more resilient than you may guess. I would be very surprised – even with the enormity of this disaster – if you find the majority of people becoming mentally incapacitated. I don’t think it’s going to happen. But every disaster happens in a unique context. Chernobyl 20 years later – it’s hard to compare to what just happened, and one shouldn’t do it, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to hypothesize that 20 years down the road that this will be part of their collective memory.”