One Year After the Nuclear Accident at Fukushima, Evelyn Bromet Reviews Lessons Learned from Chernobyl

In an article on the mental health consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, published in a special section on Fukushima in The Journal of Radiological Protection, Distinguished Professor Evelyn Bromet, PhD makes a case for including standard measures of psychological well-being in the health monitoring of the victims of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima and for training the non-psychiatrist physicians in the region to recognize and follow up on common mental health problems. Dr. Bromet’s recommendations were based on a review of the literature related to the psychosocial consequences of radiation disasters as well as her own studies of populations affected by the Chernobyl disaster.

Dr. Bromet points out that people in the area of the Chernobyl plant were exposed not only to radiation, but to multiple psychological stressors, including displacement, separation from families, misinformation, and stigmatization. Comparisons of adult populations exposed to radiation with demographically matched comparison groups who were not exposed showed that after two decades the exposed populations had significantly poorer mental health. The analyses indicated that perceived (rather than actual) exposure to harmful levels of radiation was the key risk factor and that mothers of young children were at particularly high risk. In another study, clean-up workers (called liquidators) were found to have higher rates of suicide, depression, PTSD and severe headache compared to a matched comparison group. Studies of the long-term effects of exposure on the psychological and cognitive development of children yielded ambiguous results, partly because the researchers did not have direct access to data on exposure.

Dr. Bromet points out in the article that the Chernobyl Forum, an organization sponsored by the United Nations, concluded that the greatest impact of the Chernobyl disaster, in terms of the number of people affected and its implications for public health, is its impact on mental health. This finding, she argues, suggests the importance of including monitors of mental health in the routine surveillance of populations affected by the accident at Fukushima, of providing credible information to disaster victims and of training physicians to recognize and treat common mental health problems, while keeping in mind the significance of perceived, rather than measured, exposure.