Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, memorial to the first city to suffer a nuclear attack, Japan

When nuclear disasters occur, the psychological harm tends to be far worse than the physical.

However, when accidents happen, people rush to the hospitals, but not to mental health clinics even after the physical wounds have been treated. Not only do we deny our psychological problems, but we also resist seeking psychological treatment when we realize we need it.

Reading on science news this week what caught my eye was a Reuter’s article which stated that “People caught up in a nuclear disaster are more likely to suffer severe psychological disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder rather than any harm from radiation.” I was surprised.

Scientists on the latest studies on the aftermath of nuclear disasters have started to counter the misconception that the damage is only physical. Although it is true that hundreds of thousands of people have died from nuclear weapons, meltdowns, and other disasters, what scientists are now confirming is that the mental health effects are far more profound.

The very few but disastrous radiation exposures around the world have given scientists time to develop some long term historical data. The 2011 tsunami in Japan, the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 1986 Chernobyl accident are huge sources of information not only on how to prevent catastrophic disasters but also on what is the impact on people’s lives and what to do to to improve the quality of life afterwards.

Dr Koichi Tanigawa led the radiological protection program at Fukushima Medical University, Japan, after the tsunami hit them in 2011. He recently published in The Lancet (a prestigious science journal) about the psychological burden of those living in the afflicted regions, a perspective often overlooked in nuclear and physical disasters. His team of scientists explained that factors such as having to evacuate homes or simply living with the fear of something bad happening has contributed to much more widespread emotional trauma than was thought before.

Dr Tanigawa wrote “Although the radiation dose to the public from Fukushima was relatively low, and no discernible physical health effects are expected, psychological and social problems, largely stemming from the differences in risk perceptions, have had a devastating impact on people’s lives.” (If you want to read the article look at the bottom of the page for the link.)

With Dr. Tanigawa’s study the news for improving the quality of our life just got better. Although in the past the medical establishment and the scientific world routinely dismissed the psychological impact of life as secondary, abundant evidence points to the fact that our mental health is at least as important as our physical health if not more. And although the psychological traumas may not be as obvious as physical ones, they can be long lasting and far more debilitating. We all need to be advocates for our emotional health as well as the emotional health of those who are around us.

Read more at:

* Reuters

** The Lancet