Let’s Talk, an Innovative Approach to Communication and Mental Health for Post-Disaster Victims

“As long as I have the seed of hope in my heart, I can live anywhere. Probably, all people are the same. No matter what comes up, no matter how hard it gets along the way, we have to move forward for the future. For this reason, or even if your hometown has been entirely destroyed by an unexpected tragic event, or something similar has happened to you, even if you have lost everything, have strong souls to look up at the sky and move forward. Then you really sow the seed of hope in your heart. Eventually, you can reap happiness…” Written by Teiichi Sato, a survivor of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Rikuzentakata, Japan.

Mr. Sato learned to speak English through the Let’s Talk Foundation program in order to tell his story in English as a record of the tsunami for those who perished and as a token of his gratitude for the support he received after the disaster. Over a three-year period, Mr. Sato learned English and wrote a book entitled “The Seed of Hope in the Heart” which was later used as the basis for a film.  This and other survivors’ stories are a chronicle and tribute to the personal struggles and efforts for recovery after a major disaster.

Let’s Talk Foundation program participants and volunteers.

A 9.1 magnitude earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011 at 2:46 PM approximately 231 miles north east of Tokyo. As a result of the earthquake, a tsunami occurred causing approximately 18,500 deaths with 2,500 people still missing.

This was the worst earthquake to ever hit Japan. Its effects were felt around the world and will take decades to repair. Approximately 230,000 people lost their homes and the total damage caused is estimated to be $300 billion. Six years later, residents are still recovering from the disaster.  Radioactive water continues to leak from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant which suffered a level VII nuclear meltdown after the tsunami. The area surrounding the plant is still uninhabitable. Tsunami debris continued to wash up on North American beaches two years later.

Steady progress has been made in the restoration of infrastructure damaged by the tsunami but the reconstruction of people’s lives, disrupted by the disasters, continues to be slow and uneven.  Major efforts are required to rebuild communities which have dealt with the outflow of residents from affected areas and the slow return of livelihoods due to the limited redevelopment of commercial areas and economic activities. The number of people living in temporary housing has reduced from 120,000 to 35,000. However, it is still problematic for those who are currently living in inconvenient and isolated temporary housing.

People affected by the disaster also sustained psychological injury. This is particularly evident in survivors who are still in temporary housing and was noted in the results of several health surveys, and the high number of suicides in the affected areas.

There are many efforts taking place to provide mental health care and treatment, including for post-traumatic stress syndrome. One such effort, which has been implemented for the past six years by the Let’s Talk Foundation, has a large number of volunteers who visit Rikuzentakata on a monthly basis to support residents in the tsunami affected areas. Let’s Talk Foundation uses an innovative people-to-people approach to improve communication and socialization by using English as a basis for building relationships with residents. This gives them an opportunity to interact with outsiders and express their interests and concerns. As part of this process, mental health issues can be addressed.

The program started in November 2011 as a result of a visit to the devastated area by the founder of Let’s Talk. During his visit, a resident asked for help in creating a program for learning English for some of the victims of the disaster. The Let’s Talk Foundation program was adapted in order to assist the residents to learn English in accordance with their areas of interest and encourage self-directed study through coaching. The participants decide what they would like to learn, for example, translation of songs into English, translation of recipes, general conversation, and storytelling. The volunteer acts as a coach and helps the participant learn English based on their area of interest. If the participant talks about their personal situation, concerns, problems, or frustrations, the coach listens to their story. Listening with empathy provides the participant with a supportive environment for expressing their feelings.  This can have a positive effect on the emotional, psychological and social well-being of the participant.

Because the participants bring their own materials for learning English, they have a sense of ownership. The focus is not on rigorous grammar but on reading and vocabulary. Participants get to practice their English in a friendly space. This one-on-one process appears to be very effective in enabling participants to develop new relationships and share their stories with outsiders which is sometimes easier than discussing it with other victims of the disaster.

I continue to participate as a volunteer and gain insight on the ongoing efforts to aid victims with recovery and the mental health aspects of this process.

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