Finding a ‘new normal’ in Japan

UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US) — Many survivors of Japan’s triple disaster are facing a hard emotional reality: The “old normal” is gone. Now the search for a new normal begins, says a mental trauma expert.

“They call it the disillusionment phase,” says Joanne Caye, a clinical associate professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s the place where you start to feel things again, and you begin to realize that what you knew as previously normal will never happen again.”

Three weeks after the massive earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged nuclear reactors, the shock is starting to wear off for some residents and a new realty is emerging.

“Your whole way of life has been changed, or you’ve lost significant others or your house has been destroyed along with all of your belongings,” adds Caye. “You’re beginning to wonder, ‘How do I start over from that kind of place?'”

Although government assistance should be available to assist victims, many Japanese are also likely beginning to fear that aid is not reaching them quickly enough, Caye says. News reports of residents sweeping some store shelves clean of basic necessities, such as bottled water and canned food, point to spreading worry.

Damage at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and fears of radiation contamination only exacerbate residents’ concerns and can further challenge efforts to return to some kind of normalcy, Caye says.

“But we know that the faster that they can do that, the better off they will be,” adds Caye, who co-directed a UNC rebuilding project in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and is co-author of the book When Their World Falls Apart. “So if, for example, kids have a school to go back to, they need to do so.”

Dealing with the psychological toll of more than 10,000 people dead and thousands still missing will also affect long-term recovery efforts. Caye says she was happy to hear that Japan’s mental health system has already set up “safe places” for children where kids can get away and participate in mental and physical activities. Such spaces, which were also established after Katrina, are monitored by trained volunteers who can offer assistance if the children need it, she adds.

Japan’s restraint in accepting aid where government leaders feel it isn’t necessary is also impressive, Caye says. Too many volunteers on the ground can sometimes do more to overwhelm recovery efforts than speed them up, she said. For example, after Katrina, “people started crawling all over New Orleans and Mississippi,” leaving local residents stripped of their privacy and self-direction.

“You really can create a sense of helplessness and despair when the people don’t need it,” she says. “So the question is how do you utilize good intentions? And how do you do that in a way that honors culture and that respects a people’s sense of self-efficacy? And my impression is given that Japan has said no to a number of things, is probably pretty smart.”

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