J Radiol Prot. 2012 Mar;32(1):N71-5.
The psychosocial consequences of disasters have been studied for more than 100 years. The most common mental health consequences are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, medically unexplained somatic symptoms, and stigma. The excess morbidity rate of psychiatric disorders in the first year after a disaster is in the order of 20%. Disasters involving radiation are particularly pernicious because the exposure is invisible and universally dreaded, and can pose a long-term threat to health. After the Chernobyl disaster, studies of clean-up workers (liquidators) and adults from contaminated areas found a two-fold increase in post-traumatic stress and other mood and anxiety disorders and significantly poorer subjective ratings of health. Among liquidators, the most important risk factor was severity of exposure. In general population samples, the major risk factor was perceived exposure to harmful levels of radiation. These findings are consistent with results from A-bomb survivors and populations studied after the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident. With regard to children, apart from findings from ecological studies that lack direct data on radiation or other teratologic exposures and local studies in Kiev, the epidemiologic evidence suggests that neither radiation exposure nor the stress of growing up in the shadow of the accident was associated with emotional disorders, cognitive dysfunction, or impaired academic performance. Thus, based on the studies of adults, the Chernobyl Forum concluded that mental health was the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident. Since mental health is a leading cause of disability, physical morbidity, and mortality, health monitoring after radiation accidents like Fukushima should include standard measures of well-being. Moreover, given the comorbidity of mental and physical health, the findings support the value of training non-psychiatrist physicians in recognizing and treating common mental health problems like depression in Fukushima patients.