Depression, alcoholism take toll on lonely evacuees in disaster areas

August 03, 2011

IWAKI, Fukushima Prefecture--An 86-year-old woman knows she has little chance of returning to the home where she had lived for more than 30 years.

She left her home in Hirono after the town became part of the voluntary evacuation zone about 25 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Now feeling alone and helpless after evacuating to a hotel in Iwaki in the prefecture, the woman, whose husband died five years ago, takes prescribed sleeping pills every night just to fall asleep.

The drugs aren't working; she says that she still wakes up every hour.

At least once during the daytime, she says she thinks about killing herself.

"Perhaps I had better die," the woman muttered. "But I want to die in Hirono."

Cases of depression and alcoholism are rising in number among evacuees of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear accident.

A team of mental care specialists from Kyoto Prefecture treated 262 people at seven evacuation centers, including one in Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture, until July.

The team said 51 evacuees, or 19.5 percent, were suffering from reactive depression.

Toru Ishikawa, president of the Tohokukai Medical Hospital in Sendai, says the survivors of disasters have become more susceptible to depression and alcoholism since moving into temporary housing from evacuation centers. That's because many of them now live alone.

"A system is needed in which community nurses can continue to listen to the same people for an extended period, but there is a shortage of nurses in the disaster areas," Ishikawa said. "I hope that those who find people with possible (depression or alcohol) problems advise them to see a doctor."

Post-traumatic stress syndrome is also a problem.

A 59-year-old former boatswain from Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, escaped the tsunami by fleeing over a bridge. But the bridge soon collapsed, and he saw a woman behind him being swallowed up by the wave.

This woman and colleagues who also died in the disaster keep haunting his dreams.

"I have nightmares in which they say, 'Come over here,'" he said. "I cannot sleep because of the fear."

The man often wakes up screaming at the evacuation center where he now lives.

He said other residents have grown annoyed by his shouting, saying, "Would you stop that?"

At Aratame Hospital in Iwaki, which specializes in psychiatric care, the number of new patients increased by 20 percent after the earthquake.

In Fukushima Prefecture, suicides in May and June rose 20 percent over the same period the previous year to 118.

Many evacuees are turning to the bottle to escape their loneliness and despair.

A team from the National Hospital Organization Kurihama Alcoholism Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, visited an earthquake survivor living alone in temporary housing in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, in mid-July.

A portrait of his deceased wife and pictures of his children who live away from home were on display in his room. There was also a 2.7-liter bottle of shochu in his room.

"When did you start drinking today?" asked a member.

"At about 8:40 in the morning," the man, 73, replied.

When he was younger, the former scaffolding worker would drink only after the day's job was done.

Since the earthquake, however, he has had nothing to do except to clear rubble when the occasional job offer comes in.

So he starts drinking in the morning before visiting residents who also fled the community.

Hitoshi Maesato, director of the psychiatry department of the Kurihama alcoholism center, said eight out of 20 evacuees treated by the center have drinking problems.

"Those who start drinking in the morning require hospitalization," said Maesato, who heads the center's team in the disaster area. "I hope our rounds will help prevent alcohol dependence, if only by a little."

The Kurihama center is trying to raise awareness about alcoholism by holding seminars for residents, community nurses and doctors at the evacuation centers.

Sachio Matsushita, deputy director at the center, said the main cause of depression and alcohol dependence is loneliness.

"In disaster areas where community functions still remain, helping each other will lead to support," he said.

(This article was written by Miki Aoki and Akiko Okazaki.)

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A man drinks shochu in the morning at his temporary home in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. (Akiko Okazaki)

A man drinks shochu in the morning at his temporary home in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. (Akiko Okazaki)

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  • A man drinks shochu in the morning at his temporary home in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. (Akiko Okazaki)

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