Whether earthquake, volcano, flood or fire, natural disasters have a tendency to dominate the news headlines in international media. Reporting on the geographic location, casualties and the scale of human loss follows straight-on after the initial breaking story in a typical media cycle.
Over time, however, as coverage diminishes and attention spans wane, the longer term aftermath of the disaster and its impact on affected communities often remains out of the spotlight. In particular, the mental health impacts of the disaster on victims are rarely considered.
“Helping Victims of Natural Disaster“ was a two-day symposium organized by the Tokiwa International Victimology Institute in cooperation with the Japan-US Evidenced-based Mental Health Response Initiative at Charleston, South Carolina (JEMRI), and the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP). The seminar brought together experts on diverse aspects of disaster management, to discuss ways to support the recovery of victims of natural disasters and to empower them through grassroots community development and governance.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, the question arose as to how people cope with the tremendous devastation of a tsunami and, consequently, the loss of family members and friends. The seminar focused on sharing experiences and understanding the psycho-social impact of large-scale disasters.
Understanding how disasters affect individuals’ psychological well-being is critically important. As Kieran Mundy from Tokiwa University stated, “the nature and process of the severe environmental assault is of secondary concern — we cannot prevent most of these critical natural events”.
In a keynote address, Jun Oyane, Professor of Human Science, Senshu University, summarized the history of Japan’s disaster and presented practical examples on how to deal with challenges such as housing shortages. Prof. Oyane highlighted the importance of directly involving those who have lost their homes in the rebuilding process. He explained that this was an important lesson learned from the Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe in 1995.
Prof. Oyane urged the necessity to “focus on the old and valuable social relationships” that existed in the community prior to occurrence of the disaster.
Volunteers can also play an important role in motivating communities. Shuki Ito, from the Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council, gave a presentation showcasing the volunteer projects implemented to date. He thanked the volunteers “for cheering up and motivating the community” by cleaning-up houses and streets.
Whilst the Japanese presenters at the symposium focused on disaster guidelines and how to involve communities in the recovery process, other presenters from Australia, Europe and the USA stressed the need to consider the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which often occurs after disasters.
“The majority of people do not develop long-term mental health problems” after a natural disaster, explained Mark Creamer from the University of Melbourne. He explained that, usually, the community is able to help itself through a normal recovery process, and healthcare workers are able to council people with sub-clinical problems. Specialist mental health workers are only needed for patients with chronic diseases; in most cases, two-thirds will show a regeneration.
As the seminar continued into its second day, participants considered how the psycho-social recovery of victims of disaster could be better understood and how such understanding could improve disaster management, response and recovery.