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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

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Just add milk: Jamie Mead, Hilton Tokyo general manager, co-organized a "cookie therapy" session in Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, in March. HILTON TOKYO

Israelis, Hilton aid targets Tohoku tragedy traumas

Staff writer

An Israel-based international humanitarian organization and the Hilton Tokyo hotel are working to provide psychological support to traumatized survivors, including youths, of the March 2011 Tohoku catastrophes who face a prolonged stay in temporary housing and an uncertain future.

Members of IsraAID, a nonprofit disaster relief group, came to Japan four days after the earthquake and tsunami struck. With help from the Hilton Tokyo, they almost immediately started offering support to potential victims of posttraumatic stress disorder, targeting people living in shelters and children in nurseries.

Although official, medically reliable statistics have yet to quantify the extent that PTSD, depression and other mental suffering is afflicting survivors of the natural disasters and evacuees displaced by the nuclear crisis, a May survey by Fukushima Prefecture alone found that more than 5 percent of the 90,000 respondents felt they needed emotional support.

Experts say symptoms of stress and other mental problems may be latent, but preventive and curative efforts should be started immediately because traumatic experiences can trigger depression or PTSD at any time.

But government support for people suffering from such problems appears lacking. Adding to the problem is the social stigma of seeking help for mental ailments.

"We cannot treat them, but we can give a toolbox that people can use to adjust themselves if they develop such illness," said Yotam Polizer, IsraAID's Japan project manager. Polizer said years of conflict and warfare have helped Israel develop PTSD studies and effective therapies.

While many support groups may come and go, IsraAID is one of the few organizations that provides continuous support. The group has conducted more than 180 workshops in eight tsunami-stricken municipalities, including Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, and Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture.

Hilton Tokyo helps IsraAID with accommodations and translations during their therapy sessions and has hosted barbecue events in June in both municipalities, inviting more than 1,500 people.

Every month, IsraAID brings in experts on PTSD from Israel and the U.S. to provide art, music and movement therapies to relieve stress. One such program is the Hilton-sponsored "cookie therapy," in which children draw pictures on cookies.

Smadar Korn, an Israeli professional therapist who provides music and movement therapy, said if people can't release their stress, they "become depressed and sick." She said movement therapy really helps the people in Tohoku because their bodies became rigid from the trauma they experienced.

A Fukushima University study found younger children can be more prone to stress because they may also be exposed to their parents' mental suffering. Yet it's hard to tell what triggers emotional collapse.

"They all look fine on the surface, but we can't know what's going on inside," said Reiko Hayami, director of a nursery school in Shinchi. "That's why we need long-term stress management programs like the ones IsraAID offers."

After almost one year of providing therapy, IsraAID and Hilton Tokyo are stepping up their effort to motivate youths by offering leadership and vocational programs starting at the end of August.

The programs will offer almost 100 high school students 10-day programs at the Hilton Tokyo to teach them how to be leaders in their communities. Polizer said he felt Tohoku youths, especially those living in temporary housing and feeling helpless, needed coaching on such skills to give them the motivation to change their situation.

"Israel is very big on entrepreneurship. We can teach them how to think outside the box," said Polizer.

Hilton Tokyo will also offer skill programs in which students can get hands-on hospitality experience in such areas as food and beverages and housekeeping. Hilton Tokyo General Manager Jamie Mead said the program will be enough for them to get jobs in the service industry back in the Tohoku region, and Hilton may consider hiring the trainees based on their performance.

"I saw many young kids living in the temporary housing but had nothing to do but kill time, so I thought Hilton could help," said Mead, who spearheaded the June barbecues. "Tohoku needs long-term and diverse help, and it matches with our idea of hospitality."

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