Japan: MSF Supports Psychologists Working in Disasters' Aftermath

While treating patients with chronic conditions in remote parts of the disaster zone, MSF is also supporting psychologists carrying out mental health consultations.

Japan 2011 © Jun Saito/MSF

An MSF staff member consults with a patient in an evacuation center in Minami Sanriku.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) plans to support a team of six psychologists who will treat survivors of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit northeast Japan March 11.

For the past 12 days, a 12-person MSF team has been treating patients with chronic diseases in one of the areas worst affected by the disasters. A psychologist was also sent in earlier this week to evaluate mental health needs.

“Many people now are in a phase of acute stress disorder, which is a totally natural response to this level of trauma,” said Ritsuko Nishimae, a clinical psychologist working with the MSF team in Minami Sanriku. “If they are not able to get proper support psychologically, there is an increased possibility that they could develop post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D),” said the psychologist.

Ritsuko has been working in the field for the last two days, getting an accurate picture of needs, as well as working with disaster survivors. “I talk with them and listen to their experiences and to what they need now," Ritsuko said. "Gradually, they open their feelings and express their thoughts and show emotion. This process is very effective to release stress."

The psychologists with whom MSF plans to work come from the Japanese Society of Certified Clinical Psychologists. MSF will assist them as they identify populations in need of assistance and will provide logistical support.

MSF medical teams continue to work in evacuation centers in Minami Sanriku, in northern Miyagi prefecture, and has also started supporting a Japanese doctor who was working in the town of Taro, in Iwate prefecture. The main activity continues to be consultations with elderly patients suffering from chronic diseases such as hypertension or diabetes.

On Wednesday, MSF distributed 10,000 hygiene kits containing soap, tooth brushes, toothpaste, and towels to evacuees in Minami Sanriku. On Friday and Saturday, non-food-item kits containing batteries, candles, matches, and towels will be distributed to 4,000 people. Daily improvements in the provision of food, water, and electricity have been observed by the team.

The emergency phase of the national response to the disaster appears to be winding down as Japanese Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT) withdraw and local authorities gradually take over responsibility for medical care.

MSF will continue its current medical activities in coordination with local authorities and monitor the situation in remote areas where we can provide additional support if needed.

The massive national response by both government and non-government actors continues to expand, but the MSF team will remain on the ground to fill in gaps in treatment of patients or other needs should they arise.