Japan: Major aftershocks are adding to emotional fallout

by Dr Unni Krishnan Disaster Response Policy Coordinator Plan International | Plan UK
Monday, 11 April 2011 16:25 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It felt like a monster was violently shaking the building. It was about half past eleven at night and I had just returned to my hotel room in Sendai after a busy day of running an orientation session on emotional first-aid and psychosocial care support for a group of paediatricians, local psychologists and youth artists who are working as volunteers in Sendai.

I was on the 4th floor of the hotel in central Sendai, trying to connect with colleagues in London. The chair, television, everything around me started shaking and swinging. A few things I had kept on the table were sliding in different directions. I managed to grab a thick plastic folder, placed it over my head and slipped under a table. I could hear people from adjoining rooms. It felt as if it went on for a life time, but we later learned later that it lasted for around a minute.

The moment building stopped shaking we all rushed down and assembled in the open area for a long sleepless night. It was a terrifying experience. Not just the ground, everyone was left shaken. It was the longest one minute of my life.

Thursday’s tremor in Sendai measured 7.1 on the Richter scale. It was the strongest aftershock since the devastating 9.0 earthquake four weeks ago, that followed by the tsunami, ravaged deep interiors of Japan’s north-east and killed thousands. Further, the region was again rocked by another earthquake today measuring 6.6.

These aftershocks will complicate the situation for the Japan’s earthquake and tsunami survivors, especially for the most vulnerable such as children. On Wednesday, I ran a training session for over 300 kindergarten and primary teachers, along with renowned clinical psychotherapist Prof. Machiko Kamiyama. The key issue teachers are facing is the children who are shocked and traumatised. My team from Plan and I listened to several children who expressed their fears and concerns.

This is a multiple disaster which has deeply unsettled the children. Children think that they are cornered from all over. First it was the earthquake that came through land; then came the tsunami through the water (ocean); and then followed the radiation or the threat of radiation through air or environment. Children are scared and worried if there will be one more disaster. 

I have spent most of my time here in Japan since the tsunami hit almost a month ago and have become a fan of the Japanese people's admirable resilience and their ability to cope. The level of Japan’s preparedness, the strength and capacity of its people to deal with disaster are inspiring and something the world can learn from. 

However, repeated aftershocks and tsunami alerts and uncertainty about nuclear reactors have been complicating the situation. The human mind often works like a balloon. If you keep pumping in the air and don’t release the pressure, after a limit it bursts. The emotional fallout of this disaster is becoming more complex with each major aftershock. Children are finding it challenging and difficult to cope with.

That is exactly the reason that in addition to material needs of people, it is extremely important to respond to emotional and psychosocial needs and Plan’s priority are children and emotional fallouts from multiple disasters in Japan. We have been working with teachers and children and one of the main areas Plan has been working in the quake affected areas is providing emotional support and psychosocial care and support to children, teachers and parents. And we need to work with survivors like teachers as they can be the best catalysts. Inter Agency Guidelines on psychosocial care emphasises the need for  building on local capacities and systems. It is good to note that mental health professionals in Japan and the government are putting efforts to develop context specific guidance. 

The latest aftershocks further reiterate the importance of continuing the humanitarian mission with renewed energy and commitment. This is an unprecedented disaster and the complexities are being amplified by various factors including the aftershocks. Recovery will be challenging. In such a complex situation you wonder where to start rebuilding shattered communities and broken minds. As the Japanese saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, schools are perhaps a good place to start this process.