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article imagePsychologist discusses mental anguish Chilean miners face Special

By Jane Fazackarley     Sep 9, 2010 in World
Since early August 33 miners have been trapped at 2,300ft under the ground. Efforts are underway to get them out and early reports said it might take until Christmas before they could be freed. A psychologist explains the mental effects of being trapped.
It was a collapse of rocks within the San Jose gold and copper mine which left the Chilean miners trapped in a 500-square foot passage, report the Telegraph.
Last week it was reported by Sky News that their spirits had been lifted after they had received their first hot food in weeks and that some music had been delivered to the miners.
Some experts say that the miners should keep well physically while others have spoken of the possible psychological effects of their experience.
I interviewed Daniel A. Beach, Ph.D, who is a Chair and Professor of Psychology at Dominican University.
What are the likely psychological effects of being trapped underground for such a long time?
"There are few research studies that bear directly on the miners' particular situation. NASA and the Russian space programs have dedicated a great deal of research to the question of long-term confinement. Of course, they are concerned with space travel and its effects on crew members. In fact the Russian space agency is conducting a study even now that is called the Mars 500 study. In a research facility outside of Moscow, six men have been living in a hermetically sealed chamber for over 250 days. The idea here is to simulate a flight to Mars that will last about 520 days."
"Although this study and others by space agencies involve isolating groups of people in confined space for long periods, the analogy ends there. The space programs carefully select participants, and then confine them in sanitary conditions with adequate food and forms of entertainment. Also the participants are volunteers for this confinement."
"I believe a better analogy for the Chilean miners would be the episodes of confinement experienced by British polar explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Particularly those involved in the search for a Northwest Passage across Canada. These expeditions were locked in ice for many months. Some of the expeditions thrived and others failed. Those that did well had two characteristics in common. First of all, they had good leadership. This was a leader the crew could respect, and who clearly had their welfare in mind. Secondly, the crew was organized into work details that required them to provide for the general welfare and contribute to their own survival on a daily basis. Although our study of these events does not constitute true scientific research, we can learn from their successes."
Some of them are already reported to be suffering from depression. Will this worsen or will it alter as they begin to accept the situation?
"The early reports from authorities on-site were that some of the Chilean miners were suffering from depression. This should come as no surprise; however, more recent reports have been much more favorable. The men have begun to organize into work crews that will be working in three shifts for 24 hours a day. As the drill continues to bore the escape hole the men will be required to remove continuously the debris that will be dropping into the cavern. This and other forms of physical activity will likely diminish most feelings of depression, as the men recognize that progress is being made on their behalf. In addition, regular contact through electronic communications with their families will go a long way toward reducing these feelings."
The support they are receiving, letters from home and being provided with 'everyday' things, will that play an important role in how they cope?
"I have suggested that each man be permitted an allotted time each day to speak with family members. This will permit them to feel connected to their families, and connected to the events occurring on the surface. I would also suggest that from time-to-time they have famous personalities speak to them, as well, to offer words of encouragement and a brief respite from the concerns of the moment."
And how difficult will it be to adapt to life afterward?
"Few people have commented on their return to the surface, and I consider this to be of particular concern. There is no doubt that everyone will want a piece of them, as they emerge from their confinement. There will, of course, be family and friends. In addition, we can expect the media to be swarming over them looking for a story that includes first-hand accounts of their experiences. Lawyers will be interested in representing them in law suits, motion picture companies and television producers will want contracts for movies and dramatic television re-enactments. Book publishers will want to write complete accounts of their trauma, and so on and so forth. It does not require one to be a fortune-teller to imagine these events."
"The men will need time to emotionally decompress. For some it may take weeks, for others months. The government of Chile would do well to plan for this, and provide a safe place for them to spend time with family and fellow survivors until such time as they feel ready to meet the rest of the world. Teams of mental health professional should be prepared to provide counseling both to the men and to their families, as they begin to reintegrate into their former lives."
"They will never be the same. Some will fare better than others. Some will have emotional scares that may be with them rest of their lives, others may be affected to a lesser degree. An early intervention by experienced professionals can go a long way to diminishing the long-term effects of this experience."
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