Kobe Quake Shakes Stigma Attached to Mental Anguish

Article excerpt

After January's devastating quake, Shigeo Tatsuki wondered whether Western trauma counseling would work in a society where emotions and pain tend to be repressed and psychological treatment itself is still shunned.

But when an Israeli trauma psychologist took him and others through a drawing exercise during a recent seminar on healing techniques, Tatsuki found himself in tears as he sketched his own desire for hope in a picture of a blue sky peeking through a thorny rose bush.

"When I cried, I felt the process of healing and realized how much I needed help," said Tatsuki, a Kwansei Gakuin University sociologist who today is leading regional efforts to expand mental-health education through seminars and a cable TV program. "I was much impressed that these techniques could alleviate stress by helping us to feel."

As experts from around the globe have flown to Japan to share healing techniques born of their own wars, disasters and atrocities, the people of Kobe are finding that they do work.

With small smiles and big hugs, quiet confessions and tearful release, the people are beginning to heal themselves.

Six months after the earth heaved and killed 5,500 people in the Kobe area, an American social worker, Kelly Lemmon-Kishi, brings teddy bears donated by well-wishers throughout the United States and tells entranced children at a YMCA preschool to hug their new friends whenever they are scared or sad.

At a temporary housing shelter, Yoshio Hirata, 93, tells psychotherapist Kazu Kobayashi that he has no pleasures left in life. But even as his brow furrows with the pain of his wife's death from injuries after the quake, he is clearly happy for this rare chance to talk and does so, nonstop.

Hiroko Minami sponsors trauma specialists from San Francisco to lecture at her nursing school and ably uses the techniques herself. Just two weeks ago, one of her nurses came to her feeling sad and ended up pouring her story out in tears - the first time the distraught woman had had a chance to talk about herself rather than listen to others.

In one of the quake's most striking reverberations, Kobe has launched a wave of public education and volunteer training about mental health on a scale unprecedented in Japan. Many here hope Kobe will be the catalyst for de-stigmatizing psychological care among the Japanese, much as the Vietnam War did for Americans.

"Twenty, 30 years ago in the U.S., mental illness was a secret, and going to see a psychiatrist was a family shame," said Lemmon-Kishi, president of the Kansai International Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists. "But Vietnam helped Americans understand that people who had gone through a horrible war would have emotional reactions they couldn't control. I hope Kobe will give birth to the same thing in Japan."

It may, thanks to a widespread focus on what people here are calling kokoro no kea - mental care - and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. …