Chilean Miners: What Happens Next?

Julie Ryan Evans

Chilean MinersThe world watched and cheered as the Chilean miners emerged from their trap underground. While the men sustained a few scrapes and minor medical complications, overall they are in amazingly good physical health.

But what of their mental health? What does being trapped underground for 69 days do to one's mind? Surely no one can survive an ordeal like that, come that close to death, without some haunting memories and mental anguish.

Dr. Chip Stone is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist in Orange County, California, who has worked extensively with individuals in the wake of traumatic events. He spoke with me about what life for the miners may be like in coming days and months, and the challenges they and their families may face.

What will be the toughest thing for the miners to face after they are rescued?

They have likely had time to become accustomed to the idea that they would be saved and weren't going to die. Consequently, they may be reasonably well adjusted resurfacing. 

But for those who didn't become comfortable underground, they may face nightmares, re-experiencing the trauma, panic attacks, and become hypersensitive to loud sounds, darkness, enclosed spaces, or even echoes. These features would be consistent with Acute Stress Disorder (immediately after a traumatizing event and the symptoms up to a month following the event) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (the recurrent symptoms experienced a month or longer after an event). 

For those who have families who are well-adjusted, their transition will likely be easier. For those who don't have close friends or family, they may find themselves isolated and increasingly depressed and even suicidal

What will be the best part for them?

Ideally, if they have learned to appreciate life, their families, and their friends, they will find that they have greater satisfaction in the months and years to come. 

Finding those things in life that are most important and things previously taken for granted might be better appreciated. And, some of those things that were thought to be so important before may not be as important. 

What about their families? What challenges will they face?

Families during these brief periods where there is an expectation of success (e.g. rescuing them alive) have typically not "moved on," as they might if someone was presumed dead for a lengthy period of time. There are likely not going to be new rules in the household, and the children will not have grown up so much or adapted too much to the absence of the parent because they didn't have the expectation that the parent would not return (as happens when a parent does such things as go off to war or get lost at sea). So those things make this transition easier. 

Families must be sensitive to the perception and emotional state of the miner. That doesn't necessarily mean to treat them with kid gloves, but to be aware of the possibility that there may be elevated anxiety, panic attacks, or associative fears of dark, enclosed spaces, smells, temperatures, sounds, etc. And it's important that spouses, children, parents, and friends remain aware of the possibility that the miner in the house may be experiencing something internally that may or may not be seen on the surface. 

How does one move on after such a near-death experience?

First, a person who experiences a potentially life-changing event (especially with notoriety) may be subject to a certain level of "celebrity," and with that comes the possibility of a sense of entitlement. But free meals at the local diner may be short lived and it won't be long before the miner's foreman begins to expect a full-time effort in the workplace and limited absenteeism. 

It's sometimes this scenario that's hard for someone to move on from. In these cases, it's most important that the family members, and the miner himself, offer reminders that life, as they knew it, was and remains valuable at the level of what they were experiencing. I wouldn't expect this scenario in the current situation because of the work ethic of a miner (more specifically) and the work ethic of the Chilean population (in general). 

Second, trauma (sometimes) changes the perceptions and emotional state of a person. It suddenly matters less if there is a napkin left in the living room and suddenly more important to gaze into the eyes of the person you love and tell them that life matters because they are here. 

What do you think would be the most difficult thing to face after surviving such an ordeal?


Image via Rescate Mineros/Flickr

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