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Feeling isolated and anxious about radiation

December 26, 2014



INTERVIEW/ Yukihiko Kayama: Experts should help Fukushima mothers speak up about radiation fears



By YURI OIWA/ Staff Writer

FUKUSHIMA--Psychiatrist Yukihiko Kayama said it is becoming more embarrassing, with the passage of time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, for mothers in Fukushima Prefecture to casually discuss their fears of radiation.

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Kayama attributed the trend to a “division” within the population of Fukushima Prefecture, whereby a divergence in their lifestyles according to their residential areas, available economic resources and other factors has made it difficult for them to relate to each other's feelings.

He proposed meetings of experts with small audiences of residents, where participants could feel at ease talking about their own experiences, concerns and other problems. That would ease the speakers’ emotions to a certain extent, Kayama said.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

* * *

Question: You and your colleagues surveyed, between late 2013 and January, some 250 mothers of infants aged between 3 and 6 in the prefectural capital of Fukushima, which showed that 24 percent of the respondents were strongly depressed. What can you say about that?

Kayama: Depression rates are usually around 15 percent in similar surveys conducted in Japan. We found the more you were concerned about the effects of radiation on your children’s health, the more depressed you tended to be.

We also found that depression was being caused by a sense that you are out of sync with others in how you perceive the effects of radiation.

Q: The city of Fukushima lies tens of kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and has never been included in evacuation orders. What do you say to that?

A: The additional post-disaster radiation dose, above and beyond natural background levels that have nothing to do with the nuclear disaster, is under 1 millisievert per year as long as you lead a normal life in the city of Fukushima. That is less than one-half the annual background dose, but that still makes some people anxious.

The level of anxiety differs from person to person. Some don’t allow their children to eat food products from Fukushima because that makes them afraid, and don’t allow their children to play outdoors, either. Others do worry about food but don’t worry about playing outdoors. Still others don’t worry about either.

Q: And those individual differences in the level of anxiety are leading to the sense that you are out of sync with others, right?

A: Yes. You wonder, for example, if you will not be taken for being too nervous if you drive your child to a day-care center because you are afraid of radiation exposure along the way, or if you will not be considered too insensitive if you feed your child with food products from Fukushima Prefecture. The different levels of anxiety about radiation exposure manifest themselves in how differently from others you behave in your everyday life. That makes you feel isolated and anxious and causes depression.

Anxiety about radiation exposure can differ between husband and wife or between parent and child, who may have different ideas about evacuation, too. That has caused friction or divorce among some couples.

Q: As a resident of the city of Fukushima myself, I used to believe that people no longer talk about radiation that often these days probably because they no longer care. What do you think?

A: Officials at one day-care center in the city of Fukushima thought about no longer holding an annual lecture session by a radiologist this summer because few parents were talking about radiation anymore. When they surveyed the parents just to be sure, they found, to their surprise, that a majority of the parents wanted to attend a lecture session if it is held.

They said parents wanted to ask an expert questions such as, can't you get radiation from a bruise suffered from a tumble, is it safe to have licked a toy with sandbox earth on it, and will it be safe to continue raising your child in the city of Fukushima.

Q: Why, then, do people talk less often about radiation?

A: For one thing, people consciously keep from talking about radiation because many of them have found their own ways of coming to terms with radiation in their lives. But rather, I think it is truer to say that, with the passage of time since the nuclear disaster, it is becoming more embarrassing to talk about radiation at all.

That is partly because you are afraid you could be taken for being eccentric if you don’t react to radiation concerns the way others do. Some are concerned they could be taken for nervous ones who still worry about radiation if they just mentioned the topic of radiation.

You also tend to keep your mouth shut when you don’t know the background of the people you are talking to.

Let’s say you evacuated from the city of Fukushima to somewhere outside the prefecture of your own volition with your child. You want to share the hardships you had to endure away from home, but it would be embarrassing to do so if the person you are talking to came from an evacuation zone and has no way of returning to her home.

When you begin thinking this way and that like this, you can no longer open your mouth.

Q: I have been told that you can share your experiences more easily with people from outside Fukushima Prefecture than with people from within. What do you think?

A: Things were not like that until about half a year after the nuclear disaster. Residents of Fukushima Prefecture were able to share their accounts of hardships, like how frightened they were during the early phase of the disaster, with outright sympathy for each other. With the passage of time, however, their lifestyles have diverged according to the locations of their homes, the economic resources of their families and other factors, which has precluded mutual sympathy and has divided the population.

The reparations being paid by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the nuclear plant operator, is also engendering disparity. Residents from evacuation zones receive 100,000 yen ($840) per month per head, which means a family of four is entitled to receive 400,000 yen a month. Everyone is not happy with that, however, so slanderous fliers have been tossed into temporary housing for people from evacuation zones, and cars with license plates from areas close to the nuclear plant have been honked at by following cars while driving in the city of Fukushima.

It is becoming more awkward to touch on private issues in general. It may appear on the surface that the lives of Fukushima Prefecture’s residents are settling down, but I suppose the bonds of fellow community members have been hurt deep down, so they can no longer find common values or topics that they can share.

Q: Do you think there are ways to turn things around for the better?

A: During the early phase of the disaster, a majority of Fukushima Prefecture’s residents, including doctors like myself, knew almost nothing about radiation. That is why lecture sessions, where radiologists spoke to large audiences, were useful. But the issue of radiation exposure has been individualized now. Talking about kinds of greatest common measures at public lectures would no longer help dissolve anxiety. I think it would be more effective for experts to hold meetings with small audiences of residents so both parties can better recognize each other.

Q: You have been assisting a self-help group of people with eating disorders for more than 20 years by holding group meetings with patients and their family members. Do you have any advice to give from that?

A: My experiences with the group meetings indicate it is essential to have participants suffering from anxiety talk at length about their own experiences, concerns and other problems, instead of having experts give one-sided talks. Just talking eases the speakers’ emotions to a certain extent. If anyone in the group has had similar experiences, a show of mutual sympathy can give comfort to the speakers.

Q: Do you mean down-to-earth efforts to hold small meetings would pay off better in the end?

A: Exactly. But that rests on the basic premise of mutual trust between the radiologists, health professionals and other providers of support and the Fukushima Prefecture residents who come to the meetings. If there is no trust, the residents won’t listen, and they won’t speak their minds.

Experts and other providers of support should make sure they are ready to wholly accept what other people are and will always be on their side.

Some people worry about radiation doses that cannot have any health impact from a scientific viewpoint. If you deny such anxiety for being “unscientific,” you will end up being mistrusted. You might as well explain scientific knowledge, but apart from that, you should maintain the stance that you are ready to accept the personalities and lives of other people who come to you.

Q: In your survey of mothers in the city of Fukushima, you asked them what provided moral support as they raised their children. Among the answers, the very presence of their own children fetched the highest score of 3.76 on a scale of four, whereas the central, prefectural and municipal governments got the lowest score of 2.25. What do you have to say about that?

A: Raising your children is not without problems, but the very presence of your children motivates you to pluck up the courage to live on amid anxiety. While we have yet to find out why the central and local governments were given the low ratings, I think their inconsistent remarks and slow response during the early phase of the disaster may have taken a toll.

If you look at how central government officials respond to the Sendai nuclear plant and other issues, their emphasis is always on the need for restarts and safety, and you don’t really know how they plan to defend residents from radiation in the event another accident should occur. They can hardly win the trust of residents unless they demonstrate unambiguously that they are paying attention to the skeptics of nuclear restarts.

My daily medical practice makes me realize that trust carries enormous weight in our society. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has brought that home to me.

* * *

Born in 1945, Yukihiko Kayama became a professor of neurophysiology with Fukushima Medical University in 1987. He has been professor with Fukushima College since 2011.




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