Chilean miners may suffer mentally from ordeal
Much attention was given to the physical well-being of the 33 Chilean miners as they were rescued throughout the day -- they were given oxygen masks, sunglasses and warm clothing for the 2,000-foot ride to the surface, and they were hurried to a medical tent for a check up.
But as important in the aftermath will be their mental health, said Dr. George S. Everly Jr., an associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a faculty member at the Center for Public Health Preparedness in the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Everly has studied disaster medicine for 30 years, authoring two books on the subject and a report for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on escape and rescue from mine disasters.
He said there are two issues – the immediate problems that can surface after rescue, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and the longer-term problems associated with the let down the miners may feel when the euphoria and media attention fade.
“They’re a special lot to begin with,” Everly said in an interview about miners who agree to put themselves in such a confining and dangerous situation.
That should help many of them resist post-traumatic stress disorder. And the more they believe, rightly or wrongly, that their company did what it could to protect them, the better off they are likely to be -- same for the effort that the government put into their rescue.
The fact that no one died or was seriously hurt will also help them bond and be resilient. And it will mean they avoid survivor’s guilt, he said.
Still, he said, 25 percent of people involved in large disaster situations develop post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.
“It’s not just exposure, but something else,” he said. “That something else is the Holy Grail of the [disaster mental health] field. We don’t know exactly what it is. But it’s when the glue that holds our world together for us is gone; when our belief system is violated.”
And, down the road, 18 months or 2 years, there could be more problems. The miners could have trouble with the inevitable let down from the event. The euphoria of being rescued will be gone. The media, interviews, book deals will be over.
“Some people literally define their existence by one exposure,” he said. “’I’m a survivor of the Titanic.’ ...The degree of satisfaction outside their life as a miner will make the difference. The more they have the more resilient they will be.”
For each miner, the key will be watching for signs of trouble, early on or down the road. Just as family and friends of those returning from combat, the miners’ community will need to be on the lookout for such behavior as irritability and aggressiveness or withdrawal. And they will need to do it for a long time -- more than the 6 months the government has already promised.
But, he said, therapy, and medication, can be very effective.
Getty Images photo of the capsule used to rescue the miners