Trapped Chilean Miners

The 33 Chilean men trapped underground remain in my mind. When they were first found to be alive, I was elated – finally good news on the radio. Then, when I learned that they could not be reached for as long as four months, I found their plight horrifying. I’m somewhat claustrophobic so even thinking about their survival in a confined space makes my mind swirl. 

 I began to think that psychology must have something to offer to get them through. I know a lot about groups and group dynamics, but put a team underground in the dark with no task, no structure, limited resources, and unknown temperaments, and all bets are off.  Then, I came across an article that Psychology Today printed in April, 2010, about the men and women who have lived in extreme environments, including Antarctica and space capsules.  Antarctica is described as “monotonous” with a quote from an explorer that, “the outer world of icy deprivation has descended upon the inner worlds of our souls.” The space capsules are, “cramped modules, utterly sealed off from the rest of humanity.”  I figured there might be a model for the miners’ problem, after all.

 The points about confinement and isolation that we might learn from are:

  1. Even when people are screened for the job and the deprivation (not true for miners), some still suffer from mood disorders, particularly depression, anxiety, and insomnia. No surprise so far.
  2. Temperature affects mood. I don’t know if the miners are suffering from heat, cold or both.  Cold and dark contribute to depression but there may be some minimal control over this.
  3. Time drags on, especially at the midpoint when you realize that you are only half way there. Celebrations, such as surviving the mid-point of confinement, can lift spirits for days or weeks. Send in the clowns!
  4. People begin to want to be alone. This is not going to be possible for the miners unless they rig up some privacy place.
  5. People who annoyed you a little bit begin to feel like tormentors because you can’t get away from them. Their minor habits seem major. This can lead to violence.
  6. People are lonely.  I’ve read that in Chile loved ones are sending notes and photos down the mineshaft.
  7. When it is all men, they get more competitive and less emotionally open. No solution to that.
  8. It helps when they have shared goals and interests. This can certainly be encouraged.
  9. It helps when people have interesting things to share to alleviate the boredom.
  10. They need structure and leadership. I’m sure that the psychologists who are at the scene are working hard on creating a strong leadership below.
  11. They need tasks.
  12. They need to be connected to each other and to the outside world.

And one more thing that nobody ever writes about – they need to be prepared for a strange return. It will be weird; they may not be as happy as they imagine; they will have had an experience that few people on earth can relate to; and they will need time to figure out how their lives have changed.  Stories always seem to end when they pull the baby from the well, when the soldier returns home, and when they fish the astronaut out of the sea. Not for the person coming back – for them, a new chapter is just beginning.

 This doesn’t speak to the darkness, boredom and fear.  I’ll post more as I can learn more.

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