Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thoughts on Culturally Relevant Coping following the Disaster in Japan

- by Agnes Kwong

When the Tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2001 and the devastation unfolded before the world’s eyes, my heart ached for the people of Japan. Almost immediately after the Tsunami, the nuclear crisis hit and reactions to the initial traumatic event were interrupted by a state of emergency and a long period of uncertainty and fear. The death toll in Japan is now over 10,100 and there are still over 17,000 people missing. Over 250,000 people have lost everything and are currently living in government-run shelters.

I have been thinking a lot about the mental health needs of the Japanese people and ways in which the western ways of addressing and working with trauma fall short for people in Japan, who are more collectivistic. In the U.S., verbal processing and addressing problems directly are valued. Certainly, as a psychologist trained in the U.S., I rely heavily on “talking” as a primary form of healing. However, people from collectivistic cultures, such as in Japan, tend to rely on different coping strategies. For example, sharing in the experience with family and others, seeking comfort from someone who had a shared experience (i.e., relational universality), seeking comfort from those who are a part of their same ethnic group, and sometimes, keeping problems to oneself to not burden others (i.e., forbearance) are all valued and important ways of moving through difficult experiences. Given these coping strategies, watching the news and connecting to the events of what is happening in Japan may be curative in a way that it may not be for more individualistic people in the U.S. Similarly, for some Japanese individuals, simply spending time with friends going through similar grief or trauma reactions can be as healing as talking directly about one’s feelings.

Attached is an article that describes some of the key differences between collectivistic and individualistic cultures and primary ways in which collectivistic individuals cope. This qualitative research study was conducted after 9/11, when different patterns of coping amongst different ethnic/cultural groups were emerging. As we think about the ways we see trauma and healing whether in our professional or personal lives, it is important to consider the cultural worldview from which we are operating, especially since we may begin to see more collectivistically oriented Japanese clients in our practice or have collectivistic friends or family who are coping with the aftermath of the traumatic events that occurred in Japan.

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