Chilean Miners' Suffering Like Soldiers'

/ Source: Discovery Channel

Astronauts, submariners and over-wintering Antarctic researchers have all been looked to for comparisons of the psychological plight of the 33 trapped miners in Copiapó, Chile. But a better analogy might be soldiers on extended combat duty.

"(Astronauts, sailors and polar researchers) go into it voluntarily," said psychologist and isolation researcher Lawrence Palinkas of the University of Southern California. "They know their isolation will come to an end. These miners are not sure about that."

Even experiments in which people try to simulate the long, dangerous, profoundly isolating trip to Mars fail to reproduce the harshest aspects of reality, Palinkas said.

"The drawback is that these people know it's an experiment," Palinkas told Discovery News. "They can say 'I'm done now, so I want to go up.'"

"When you boil it down to the psychological level, there is physical misery, separation (from families), uncertainty and ambiguity about the future," explained U.S. Army Col. Tom Kolditz of Westpoint. These pretty much sum up the experiences of soldiers on extended combat missions, he said.

The good news, Kolditz said, is that there has been loads of research on soldiers in these situations, so there is plenty of precedents to look to and strategies available to help the miners.

Among the first things to happen in such dire predicaments among soldiers, said Kolditz, has already happened in the mine: The miners appointed leaders among themselves.

"It's called 'emergent leadership,'" said Kolditz, who has studied this phenomenon in detail. "In dangerous contexts an individual's rank or official standing has less to do with leadership than competence does."

All other normal, everyday leadership attributes -- affability, popularity and such -- go out the window. The most competent people lead.

The next big psychological challenge for the miners, just like soldiers, is their families.

"A big part of their stress is about their families," said Kolditz. The miners are all poor, and the company that owns the mine is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. So the miners are worried about the safety and well-being of their loved ones, and are powerless to help.

The loss of the daily rhythms is another major hurdle, says Palinkas. Cycles of light and dark stimulate hormones that regulate the human body. That can lead to insufficient sleep, increased fatigue, short-term memory loss, irritability and depression. These, in turn, can magnify even the smallest irritations, he said.

"Snoring you could pretty much stand in normal situations," said Palinkas. But, he says, it could lead to major conflicts in prolonged isolation.

An additional pattern that could develop among the miners is distrust. It could be aimed either within their group or towards the people trying to rescue them, Palinkas said.

"Any attempt to be not entirely forthcoming (by rescuers) could be seen as a lack of trust," said Palinkas. That, oddly, could unify the miners against the people running things, in this case their rescuers.

"You see that a lot in polar expeditions and a lot of missions in space," said Palinkas. Too little information (from their distant superiors) or too much work causes discontent and distrust.

Among the simple things that can help the miners battle all the effects of isolation is a predictable schedule, said Kolditz.

For example, during the Vietnam War, soldiers in extended field operations for 50 to 80 days were required to shave and reapply their face paint every day. It's was a small thing, but a constant in an otherwise unpredictable situation.

There is also evidence from people who have worked in bunkers for long periods that circadian rhythms can be managed with good schedules, Kolditz said.

Overall, Kolditz is particularly optimistic about the miners' psychological prospects. The fact that the men supported each other when they broke down emotionally during recent videos is a very good sign, he said.

"What you are seeing is that they have really pulled together as a group," said Kolditz.

It's even likely, he said, that for some of the miners this whole disaster will be a life-changing experience that will lead to positive changes in their lives. Once again, the lives of soldiers have borne this out.