Healing the Human Mind After Tragedy

The feudal Lord of Sendai, Date Masamune, built his massive Aoba Castle at the beginning of the 17th century. Only a grassy platform fortified by enormous stone blocks survived until modern times. The site, a major landmark and tourist attraction of Sendai, was badly damaged in the devastating 9.0-earthquake that struck Japan on March 11. Today, with a portion of the retaining wall collapsed, the Aoba site is closed to the public.

At first glance, Sendai seems unscarred with its brilliant skyline and lush landscape. But if you look closer, you will start to see its impact, not just on the city itself, but on the people who live there.

Even though Japan is no stranger to natural and man-made disasters, the triple catastrophe – the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster – is unprecedented. While Japan is a successful, wealthy country with enormous economic and intellectual resources, the world felt that Japan needed a hand to pick up the pieces.

International Medical Corps was and is on the forefront of such efforts.

Japan is considered the most prepared country for disasters in terms of prevention, warning systems, and mitigation of physical damage. Buildings are periodically inspected. The population is drilled in survival techniques, and as a result, they know that the danger of earthquakes is high, whether school child or grandmother. Because Japan is well-equipped to handle disasters, International Medical Corps carefully chose its focus areas based on gaps it observed on the ground.

One area where International Medical Corps felt that more work was needed was psychosocial and mental health support for survivors. For this reason, psychosocial support is an integral part of International Medical Corps’ intervention in its Japan emergency and post-disaster response. International Medical Corps is a leader in the mental health and psychosocial support field and its work in Japan builds on experience in some 30 countries, most of which were in response to emergencies.

Immediately following the disaster, International Medical Corps deployed its Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Specialist, Dr. Inka Weissbecker, who trained trainers of one of our local partners, Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) in Psychological First Aid (PFA). Because of her efforts, 93 frontline workers as well as 85 staff from TELL and Inochi No Denwa who provide telephone counseling services, were trained in psychological first aid so that they are better able to respond to the psychological needs of survivors.

In May 2011, International Medical Corps hosted a two-day psychosocial workshop called “Healing a Community: What we can do for our children” with Tohoku University in Sendai and its partner TELL. The program brought together mental health experts from across the globe to pass on knowledge and skills to Japanese academics and professionals on how to approach an often invisible, but daunting problem: healing the human mind after disaster.

The workshop was led by Dr. Allen Dyer, Senior Health Advisor at International Medical Corps who is a world renowned authority on psychosocial issues and has conducted research and training in various part of the world, particularly in India. He was joined by colleagues from around the world, who included: Dr. Srikala Bharath, Professor of Psychiatry at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore (NIMHANS); Dr. Subhasis Bhadra, Professior of Social Sciences at Gautam Buddha University in Delhi; Dr. Sekar Kasi, Professor of Psychiatry and Social Work at NIMHANS; Eric DesMarais of the University of Denver and his wife, Masayo, a Sendai native; Ms. Chikako Ishii, TELL psychotherapist; Ms. Reiko Ohtaki, TELL Disaster Planning Coordinator; Dr. Koubun Wakashima, clinical psychologist from Tohoku University; and Dr. Keizo Hasegawa, clinical psychologist from Tohoku University.

The interest in the workshop surpassed expectations.

More than 100 participants filled the conference room at Tohoku University, which only had the capacity for 80. Students professionals, from PhD students to child specialists, packed in to participate in the workshop. International Medical Corps’ Dr. Dyer, in his opening remarks, said that there were two goals of the conference: to provide skills that can be used tomorrow, and plans for the day after tomorrow.

Even if in small ways, healing the mind could be seen among attendees, who shared some of their stories with each other. Many had lost friends and relatives. One woman was born in a house in Fujitsuka, a coastal town near Sendai. When she visited the village, she found nothing where her house once stood. Thankfully, her family was ok and living with relatives, but not everyone was that lucky.

Chikako Ishii from TELL told a story about a couple who was swept away with the top of their house in the tsunami and were eventually rescued when the floating fragments of their former home collided with a rock.

Professor Hasegawa of Tohoku University quoted an old woman who said that the tsunami and what followed was worse than the war.

On the second day, there were four breakout sessions: children, psychological first aid, life skills, and policy. No matter the session chosen, all participants appreciated the experience and the interpersonal skills shown by the workshop leaders.And most importantly, all agreed that psychosocial support is needed by all people affected by the disaster and recovery will be faster if support is offered.

The workshop was marked by a note of optimism for the future. Dr. Dyer stated that this was only the beginning and that other similar projects with Tohoku University are being planned. He also reminded them that the process of “cascading” has already started: the information and knowledge they learned in the workshop will be passed on to others and it will start flowing into communities.

Through this information-sharing, and the support that follows, human minds will be healed, just like the cracks of Sendai Castle.

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