The Mine and the Mind: The Mental Toll on the Chileans

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Roberto Candia / AP

A photograph of Johny Barrios, one of the 33 trapped miners, and a sign that reads "Strength Johny B" in Spanish outside the collapsed San Jose mine in Chile

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Whichever hours the men are awake should be as active as possible. Space-station astronauts, who may stay aloft for a year at a time, almost universally say that it's the nearly nonstop schedule of experiments and maintenance work that keeps them sane. That's hardly possible in a mine shaft, but rescue workers have done what they can to enrich the miners' environment, sending down dominoes and playing cards and passing notes back and forth. Reading material and direct communication lines will follow. The men are also being encouraged to exercise, for the mental and physical benefits, as well as to keep them from gaining weight — which could be a problem when the time comes to pull them up through a 26-in. wide rescue shaft.

"You have to normalize the situation as much as you can," says John Fairbank, a professor of psychology at Duke University and an expert in traumatic stress. "People need a routine; they need to know what to expect in their day and to have something to do with all the time they have."

Little symbols of civilized living can help too. It's not a surprise — at least to psychologists — that one of the first things the miners asked for when rescuers made contact with them was toothbrushes. That's hardly a staple of survival, but it is one of the staples of domestic life — a humanizing totem in a dehumanizing situation. With no toilets down below, the men have similarly taken care to use a small adjacent tunnel instead, which keeps things more sanitary — and more decorous too. Other kinds of personal space are not terribly likely when so many people are crammed in so small an enclosure, but it's nonetheless wise if they all try to remain mindful of at least a rudimentary sense of territoriality — where any one person prefers to sleep, for example. "You can probably carve out a little personal space," says Fairbank, "but not much."

Far and away the most important thing the rescuers can do for the miners is to make sure they remain in contact with their families. This includes regular exchanges of letters, as well as phone calls and even video conversations when the proper equipment is set up. They need to know too that the mine officials are looking after their families while they're trapped — which relieves a paradoxical sense of guilt the men may feel at being away for so long. "It's similar to what's done with combat soldiers," says Fairbank. "The level of social support they receive is a good predictor of how well they'll do emotionally when they're at last rescued."

The miners have not yet been told that that rescue could take until Christmas — and there is at least a chance it could come much sooner. But psychologists and people with experience in confinement are all but unanimous that honesty is critical and that they must be told both the worst-case scenario and the best-case possibility. Australian miner Todd Russell spent 14 days trapped in an underground tunnel with one fellow miner in 2006, and found the changing projections of when he'd be freed the worst part of the ordeal.

"After six days they're telling us, 'We should have you guys out in 48 hours, 48 hours, 48 hours,'" he told the Canadian Press this week. But that goal post kept moving and every time one 48-hour stretch would elapse the clock would be reset. That can't be allowed to happen this time.

"It's not an option not to tell them," says O'Dell. "The rescuers have already dropped some hints. But as soon as some stability is established, the miners must be told everything. Not knowing is worse than knowing."

Even when rescue does occur, the men could be dealing with the emotional blowback of their experiences for a long time. Russell says he suffered nightmares for over a year after his ordeal and the stress affected his family as well. All of the Chilean miners will be screened for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they emerge, and it will be a surprise if many — indeed most — of them don't show symptoms. Still, if there's one good thing about PTSD, it's the post- part of it. Once the men see the sun again, the immediate crisis will be over and their healing can at last begin.

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