Tsunami victims 'need to hear normal voices'
Ordinary Hongkongers have been called on to help counsel Japanese survivors of the tsunami, amid fears that the suicide rate among victims had yet to peak.
Timothy To Wing-ching, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Post Crisis Counselling Network, said 946 people among the 26,000 survivors from Fukushima had killed themselves in August, and warned the suicide rates were likely to peak at the new year.
His network has been offering support services to survivors with the backing of the Japanese government and is now preparing to organise trips for non-professionals after the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in March.
He said that while the trip would be educational for the volunteers, it would be good for the survivors to chat with ordinary people. 'It'll be refreshing for them, as they would no longer only be facing counsellors.'
The volunteers will be required to attend seminars of 10 to 12 hours before heading off, to learn what to say to survivors and how to protect themselves from radiation.
They will need to cover their own fares and costs, totalling about HK$9,000 each. Translators will be on hand so being able to speak Japanese is not a requirement.
Some 20 volunteer professional counsellors working for the network returned from a one-week visit to the city of Minamisoma, 20 kilometres from the Fukushima nuclear plant, last Saturday. It was the fifth trip to Japan that the network had organised since disaster struck on March 11.
To said the mental health of survivors remained weak eight months after the tragedy. One-third of the 530 people they have counselled since March had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He added: 'Japanese are very aware of their appearance. Now they have no cosmetics products and nice clothes, so they prefer to stay home. In some cases, they have locked themselves up for months.'
He expected the suicide rate would continue to rise as survivors started moving out of the indoor sport stadiums to temporary houses. 'In the stadium, they could support each other. Now they will be on their own,' he said.
He has already mobilised a team of counsellors to make a sixth visit in December, staying until the end of the new year period, when he believes the suicide rate among the survivors will peak.
'It's perhaps the worst new year they would have in their lives,' he said. 'They will be thinking of friends and family members they have lost.'