Radioactivity unleashed by the 2001 Fukushima nuclear disaster has created more challenges than what meets the eye. Experts say that long-term social and psychological impact of any nuclear crisis, is way more damaging than the physical risks from the radioactive exposure.
Survivors often must deal with constant uncertainties around their health and well-being of their loved ones. What if you are living in everyday fear that you may develop cancer? Or that your children’s health may be adversely affected? Worse yet, your unborn child may develop any genetic abnormality? This kind of constant stress and anxiety has taken a significant emotional toll – causing a lot of long-term psychological damage among Fukushima survivors, especially for women and clean-up workers.
The leakage of radioactive materials into the environment has raised many health concerns, mainly focusing on physical consequences, especially an increased risk of developing some kind of cancer. However, studies show that the most significant bearings of radiation disasters are often related to mental health. And most importantly, the emotional consequence is independent of the actual radiation exposure and proximity to the affected area. It is in the mind, and it is for real.
Emotional toll, fear and stigma
The psychological impact, stemming from a number of factors – including mass evacuation, long term displacement, relocation to unfamiliar settings and constant anxiety about their health, especially fears about developing cancer, has led to depression, one or more phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), medically unexplained physical symptoms and overall poor health among the survivors.
Bullying and prejudices in the workplace and in the community, is another prevailing challenge survivors continuously face. Discrimination, stigma and fear, largely coming from perceived risk of radiation exposure, are often overlooked and need to be properly addressed – something also echoed by experts in a 2015 study published in The Lancet.  The study reported that the young women in Fukushima are likely to feel stigmatised and discriminated “owing to assumptions about the effects of radiation on future pregnancy or genetic inheritance”.
A 2015 WHO survey reported that “greater perceived radiation risks were associated with poor mental health.” 
The highest risk groups?
Research and surveys suggest that mothers of young children and clean-up crew belong to the highest risk group as they are more likely to develop depressive symptoms, anxiety and PTSD, after a nuclear accident.
A 2014 study reported that “Given the established increase in mental health problems following TMI and Chernobyl, it is likely that the same pattern will occur in residents and evacuees affected by the Fukushima meltdowns. Preliminary data from Fukushima indeed suggest that workers and mothers of young children are at risk of depression, anxiety, psychosomatic, and post-traumatic symptoms both as a direct result of their fears about radiation exposure and an indirect result of societal stigma.” 
Women, especially mothers, seem to be more vulnerable to emotional and mental distress following such accidents. This sizeable impact may arise from a number of factors; for example, their responsibility as a primary caregiver and more so in emergencies; and lingering worries surrounding the health of their children who have been exposed. Stigma is another challenge and it appears that women survivors tend to feel societal stigma a lot more than men. Misconceptions and overblown facts about ill-effects of radiation exposure surrounding fertility and chances of having healthy children add to the overall psychological burden and may cause marriage discrimination for women.
However, a post published in The Guardian in 2015 is quick to explain the emotional toll among men and women may be same, as men may not divulge too many details regarding the status of their mental health. There have been reports of increased use of alcohol and drugs amongst men in the aftermath of major nuclear accidents.  This again is not surprising as living under excessive fear, anxiety and stress while dealing with radiation stigma can cause major depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), eventually leading to alcoholism and substance abuse, if not treated in time. Decreased self-esteem and falling out from family and loved ones are some more consequences.
In addition, the Japanese media has reported several cases of nuclear bullying in schools, which has led to discrimination along the same lines suffered by World War II atom bomb survivors. The impact on children who are subjected to such kinds of bullying can be extremely devastating and may lead to feelings of low confidence, depression, estrangement and suicidal tendencies among children, robbing them of dignity and opportunities to engage in normal life when they grow up.
A 25 Year Retrospective Review of the Psychological Consequences by Bromet et al. in 2011 highlighted two important points:
One, “The Chernobyl Forum Report from the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster concluded that mental health effects were the most significant public health consequence of the accident.”
Two, “The unmet need for mental health care in affected regions remains an important public health challenge 25 years later”.
Long-term studies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushima all point out that the psychological and social impacts of such disasters are more long-term, more daunting and definitely more damaging than the direct physical risks associated with radiation leakage.
The Japanese government has taken steps by urging families and schools to launch better efforts to watch out for signs of bullying and to protect children from the resulting mental trauma. There is more awareness in the society but a lot more needs to be done in terms of community engagement and support, long-term educational and psychosocial interventions and medical programs that are designed to recognize as well as psychological symptoms in survivors.
- A Hasegawa et al. Health effects of radiation and other health problems in the aftermath of nuclear accidents, with an emphasis on Fukushima. The Lancet. 2015.
- Suzuki et al. Psychological distress and the perception of radiation risks: the Fukushima health management survey. Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 2015.
- Bromet EJ. Emotional consequences of nuclear power plant disasters. Health Phys. 2014
- Becky Martin. Nuclear fallout: the mental health consequences of radiation. The Guardian. 2015