“The psychological effects were the biggest health effects of all — by far,” said Fred Mettler, a University of New Mexico professor emeritus and one of the world’s leading authorities on radiation, who studied Chernobyl for the World Health Organization. “In the end, that’s really what affected the most people.”
Fears of contamination and anxiety about the health of those exposed and their children led to significantly elevated rates of suicidal thinking and anxiety disorders, and rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression about doubled, Mettler and others said.
“The effect on mental health was hugely important,” said Evelyn Bromet, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University who studied the aftermath of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. “People’s fears about getting cancer, or their children getting cancer, and family and friends dying from radiation exposure were very intense.”
In the unprecedented disaster in Japan, where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that was followed by a major nuclear power plant emergency, all those negative psychological effects are being magnified in ways that no one can predict.
“You can imagine: There was an earthquake, and I survived that. And then here comes a tsunami, and I survived that. And then comes a nuclear reactor,” said Mettler, the U.S. representative to the United Nations who studied Chernobyl. “With that kind of triple whammy, you can only imagine someone is going to be saying, ‘What did I do? What’s wrong with me?’ ”
Survivors of the bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents in Japan and Brazil were stigmatized by their societies, which caused discrimination that intensified emotional distress.
“After almost every radiological emergency, anyone or anything seen as or perceived as associated with the emergency came to be seen by others as tainted or something to be feared and even the object of discrimination,” said Steven Becker of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Such stigmatization can interfere with victims receiving care and recovering from the event, said Becker, who studied the psychological and social impact of a much less severe nuclear accident in 1999 in Tokaimura, Japan. In that case, people in other parts of Japan refused to buy products from that region, and travelers were turned away from hotels and asked not to use public baths and swimming pools. Similar discrimination occurred after a 1987 radiation exposure event in Goiania, Brazil.