Friday, March 11, 2011

The emotional impact of Japanese disaster will be broader than the physical impact, says UAB expert

Residents of Japan have seen their fair share of earthquakes through the years, but nothing can compare to the record 8.9-magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami that hit off the nation's shore on Friday. The sheer magnitude of the number reported as dead and missing is a lot to take in and fully process.

"What we have to understand is, in terms of numbers, the psychological traumas and psychological casualties will far outweigh any of the physical casualties," explains Josh Klapow, Ph.D., a UAB associate professor of Public Health and member of the South Central Prepardness and Emergency Response Learning Center. Klapow, who also teaches a course in disaster communication, emphasizes the mental aspect of this type of tragedy.

"Even though we all recognize that the physical impact needs immediate attention, the people in Japan being able to handle their emotions will determine how quickly they can bounce back from this," he says. "In a time of crisis, people's thinking and behaviors are easily affected, so first responders or anybody serving in an aid role in Japan must have the ability to keep their emotions in check; this is critical to the response effort."

Meanwhile, as the rest of the world watches the aftermath in Japan, Klapow says those with no immediate connection to the tragedy can still be greatly affected, as well.

"We have the capability to witness everything as it is happening. What this means is the images we're going to see on the news and Internet may be unfiltered, may be graphic and may be very disturbing. It's not uncommon or abnormal for people to become distressed, nervous or anxious by watching this. And while this is a normal response, we do need to pay attention to the degree of which that has an impact on our functioning. We want to watch this, we want to stay informed but we don't want to become so saturated that we become incapacitated," he explains.

And because everything is unfolding live for the world to see, kids especially need to be guarded.

"Children shouldn't watch alone, and even if they watch with their parents, adults need to recognize that young ones could still see things that would be distressing in their eyes."

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