Trapped Chilean Miners Face Psychological Challenges

The Chilean miners trapped by a collapse face unique psychological challenges.

ByKIM CAROLLO, ABC News Medical Unit
August 23, 2010, 11:55 AM

Aug. 23, 2010— -- The 33 miners trapped in a Chilean mine since August 5 face what could be four more months in a 600-square-foot space underground as they wait for rescuers to dig a hole deep and wide enough to get them out.

According to the Associated Press, engineers secured a lifeline today to provide the miners with food, water, medicine and communication. Doctors are also trying to assess their psychological condition. Experts say that being trapped in the mine for an extended period of time could be extremely detrimental to their mental health.

And new challenges appear to be emerging by the hour. Two of the 33 men are reportedly obese, and it appears that they will not fit through the 27-inch-wide hole rescuers intend to drill. ABC News has been told that these two miners will have to lose enough weight during their captivity to fit into the hole once it is dug.

Among the psychological challenges they face is the stress of the confinement itself. ABC News has learned that psychological counseling is already available on site, as are doctors.

"We all need and are used to a certain amount of physical and psychological space around us," said Simon Rego, director of Clinical Training at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy. "As a result of being trapped, both of these variables will be compromised, along with other 'freedoms' that we normally take for granted." Rego said that among these freedoms are the ability to move about at will and to choose who to be around.

"It sounds like they will have almost every type of stressor imaginable," said Barbara Rothbaum, professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine. Those stressors include injury, lack of care, physical discomfort, lack of a daily schedule and the stress of "being in cramped quarters with many other individuals similarly stressed for months."

Loved Ones Key to Psychological Survival

The wife of one of the miners told ABC News that she prays for her husband to stay strong during the ordeal. She told him she loves him.

Experts say messages like this are vital to the miners' mental health during their ordeal. Rescuers should attempt to deliver communication from their loved ones as often as possible.

"Knowing that physical and emotional needs of their spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings and other close family members are being addressed will go a long way toward sustaining the psychological resilience of the miners," said John A. Fairbank, professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center.

Family members of the miners are camped out outside the mine, and officials say they hope they can establish communication between the miners and their family members to keep their spirits up.

Rothbaum also said teaching the miners coping techniques would help them, such as creating a mini-society where each person plays a role in helping it function.

Signs of an Impending Breakdown

Even if their physical and psychological needs are being met, rescuers should be on the lookout for signs that the miners' mental health is deteriorating, according to experts.

"The stress reaction that one might therefore expect they would experience would be initially, an increase in stress and anxiety symptoms (elevated heart rate, blood pressure, on edge, etc.) followed by depressive and irritability symptoms as the length of time being trapped increases," wrote Rego.

Other signs include not responding to others; not eating, drinking or taking care of themselves; hysterical behavior, including screaming and crying uncontrollably and aggressive behavior.

Rescuers sent down nutrition and water for hydration, in addition to a medication to prevent stomach bleeding once they do start eating.