Trapped Chilean Miners Showing Signs of Cabin Fever

Reports say miners are refusing food and acting recklessly.

September 08, 2010, 1:42 PM

Sept. 8, 2010 — -- The 33 Chilean miners who have been trapped underground for more than a month are no longer celebrating their miraculous survival, and are reportedly growing irritable and rebellious thousands of feet below ground.

The miners were upset when they were denied wine and cigarettes by authorities concerned about health implications. They were also angered when a request for empanadas was also denied, according to Chilean news outlets.

And has reported that the miners, evidently going stir crazy, have taken to riding machinery vehicles "recklessly" through the mine tunnels.

Refused the provisions they crave, the miners rejected a shipment of peaches that were sent down to them through a narrow tunnel that is their link with the world above, according the report.

Some of the miners have also grown frustrated that they haven't received letters from their relatives, one miner telling local Chilean news station TVN that he felt "abandoned" by his wife.

The grousing is a long way from the euphoria the miners expressed when they were discovered alive more than a month ago.

The newer and grumpier reactions, medical professionals say, are to be expected for a group of people who have been so secluded and limited in their daily actions for such a long period of time.

"When you're stuck in a confined area with heat and humidity and little light, our frustration tolerance starts to decrease," said Dr. Simon Rego, a psychologist at New York's American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.

"Impatience and frustration will rise and it will result in individuals becoming a little more oppositional and short-tempered," said Rego.

Trapped Miners Showing Signs of Cabin Fever

Rego says this "rollercoaster of emotions" exhibited by the miners is likely to continue until they are rescued, possibly as late as Christmas.

"[The behavior of the miners] mimics the natural progress of many people who face tragedies," he said. "In all of these traumas you see the sort of pivoting of exhilaration to barren distress. I'd guess that it would pivot again as progress gets made."

The miners have been trapped since Aug. 5 after a landslide caused the copper and gold mine to collapse, leaving the group of workers 2,200 feet below ground in a 600-square-foot space until they can be rescued.

To rescue the trapped miners, workers will try to dig a wider 27-inch shaft directly to the men. The men would be raised up one at a time. Two of the miners, however, are obese and it's not clear whether they will fit. Rescuers hope the men will lose weight in the meantime to fit through the hole.

One perk the stranded men have received so far was the ability to watch a live broadcast of a Chilean soccer game, after engineers devised a way to snake a projector down to the mine earlier this week.

While cabin fever isn't a clinical term, Dr. Ken Robbins, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, said that the behaviors exhibited by the miners are certainly related to the stress and anxiety of being trapped.

"Even for a miner who is used to being in enclosed spaces that feeling you get when you are in a place with no escape can trigger and exacerbate their anxiety," said Robbins.

"We don't know if the rebellion is just that the miners are getting depressed or that they can hardly stand it anymore, and are developing anxiety," said Robbins. "But it does sound like they're struggling down there."

"The fact that they're [reportedly] driving dangerously and fighting with the people who are trying to help them suggests that they're starting to have some mental health issues," said Robbins.

Robbins agrees that it is not a good idea to succumb to the miners' requests for wine, but says other requests, such as more contact with their families and even empanadas, might help lift their spirits.

For Trapped Miners, Euphoria Turns to Frustration

"If people are irritable or struggling and if they're having difficulty getting along and you throw in alcohol, you run the risk of triggering more arguments or even physical fights," said Robbins. "But if you deny people the things they want, that's also a risk."

"You want to give them as much as the things they want as you can to help them feel like they have some control over the situation," he said.

Robbins said the sooner the miners can get back on a normal sleep schedule and can be given more light to simulate a shift in day time to night time, the better off their mental health will be.

"The psychologists helping these miners need to help the miners recognize they need to keep busy and keep on a schedule," he said. "You don't want them to just be sitting around focusing on the fact that they can't get out."

ABC News' Helen Hughes and Kim Carollo contributed to this report.

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