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Finding the “new normal” in Japan

More than two weeks after a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, residents are most likely beginning to search for a “new normal,” a challenging stage that tends to settle in after the shock of a natural disaster has worn off, said Joanne Caye, a clinical associate professor at UNC’s School of Social Work.

“They call it the disillusionment phase,” said Caye, co-author of the book, “When Their World Falls Apart.” “It’s the place where you start to feel things again, and you begin to realize that what you knew as previously normal will never happen again. Your whole way of life has been changed, or you’ve lost significant others or your house has been destroyed along with all of your belongings. You’re beginning to wonder, ‘How do I start over from that kind of place?’”

Although government assistance should be available to assist victims, many Japanese are also likely beginning to fear that aid is not reaching them quickly enough, Caye said. News reports of residents sweeping some store shelves clean of basic necessities, such as bottled water and canned food, point to spreading worry.

Damage at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and fears of radiation contamination only exacerbate residents’ concerns and can further challenge efforts to return to some kind of normalcy, Caye said.

“But we know that the faster that they can do that, the better off they will be,” said Caye, who co-directed a UNC rebuilding project in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. “So if, for example, kids have a school to go back to, they need to do so.”

Dealing with the psychological toll of more than 10,000 people dead and thousands still missing will also affect long-term recovery efforts. Caye said she was happy to hear that Japan’s mental health system has already set up “safe places” for children where kids can get away and participate in mental and physical activities. Such spaces, which were also established after Katrina, are monitored by trained volunteers who can offer assistance if the children need it, she said.

Japan’s restraint in accepting aid where government leaders feel it isn’t necessary is also impressive, Caye added. Too many volunteers on the ground can sometimes do more to overwhelm recovery efforts than speed them up, she said. For example, after Katrina, “people started crawling all over New Orleans and Mississippi,” leaving local residents stripped of their privacy and self-direction, Caye said.

“You really can create a sense of helplessness and despair when the people don’t need it,” she said. “So the question is how do you utilize good intentions? And how do you do that in a way that honors culture and that respects a people’s sense of self-efficacy? And my impression is given that Japan has said no to a number of things, is probably pretty smart.”