Mt Ontake eruption: Survivors suffer mental scars

Some climbers who survived the September 27 eruption on Mt. Ontake suffer from a sense of guilt for surviving and sorrow for those who died.

There is fear that the mental conditions of survivors could worsen if left untended and develop into more serious problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologists say continuing care is essential for them.

However, because the disaster occurred at the popular tourist destination, the survivors come from around across the nation, and it is difficult to find ways to prevent them from feeling psychologically isolated.

A 30-year-old woman in Komaki, Aichi Prefecture, asked herself many questions after she survived the eruption.

For example, she wondered why the eruption occurred at that particular time on that day as she climbed the mountain and why she was allowed to survive.

The eruption occurred when she was near the ninth station. Amid swirling black volcanic smoke, she felt as if she was suffocating and endured blasts of hot air. When the air cleared a bit, she descended the mountain.

Initially, she rejoiced about her safe return and said she thought, "I just had an incredible experience." But after she arrived home, her attitude underwent a complete change.

She watched news videos of the eruption and knew that many people had died there. She said she was hit by a thought, "I could have died if the timing had been off by 10 minutes." She felt nauseous and had a rising feeling of guilt toward the victims.

When she turned the lights off at night, her mind saw only scenes of black smoke, and she was unable to sleep.

She said she regained a certain mental equilibrium after telling her friends about it. But at the same time, she said, "Frankly speaking, I no longer want to climb mountains." She does not try to hide her deep psychological wounds.

A 56-year-old man in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, lost four fellow climbers in the disaster. "I feel terrible for the four. It gives me a great pain," he said.

Due to a sense of moral debt, he said he felt hesitant even to meet with the families of the four climbers.

"I wouldn't have been able to endure it if people close to me hadn't listened to me," he said.

According to the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry in Tokyo, there are cases where those who survive a disaster or accident but lose a family member, friend or loved one harbour a sense of guilt about surviving.

The mental condition is called survivors' guilt.

Though those with this condition generally recover in two to three months, some suffer from extreme grief - grief so deep that sufferers face difficulty living a normal life - that continues for six months or longer, or suffer from PTSD.

Therefore, continuing mental support is essential. However, it is difficult in the case of Mt. Ontake's eruption because climbers who experienced the disaster live across the nation.

About 250 climbers were near the summit when the volcano erupted. The subsequent actions of many survivors is unknown, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the Nagano prefectural government.

A ministry official said it was difficult to convey the survivors' addresses and other data to local governments "from the perspective of protecting personal information."

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