When the general populace thinks over a disaster, often times they think of the physical impacts, which have a beginning point and an end point. For example, many in society see the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami as a complete catastrophe that began with the massive flooding, resulted in numerous deaths, and ended with the rebuilding of areas in the path of destruction. Interestingly, after a certain period of time, people begin to believe that the disaster is over once they see the physically destroyed areas rebuilt (Alam, 1990). The true extent of disasters is much larger than this, and most disasters cannot be classified with a beginning and end so far as psychological impact is concerned. Although individuals who are affected by disasters might appear to have come through unscathed, the mental health impact is notorious for being a hidden danger for many years to come (Weisæth, 1989). One author summed up this point perfectly,
“After the headlines are gone and the world moves on, most people assume that those affected by natural disasters get their lives together and move on. Unfortunately, many disaster survivors experience severe psychological distress and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.) These illnesses can go under-reported and under-treated in the wake of a disaster, but can be just as debilitating as losing a home or possessions, and can last for many years (Merzenich, 2011).”
Mental health studies are a growing field within the medical community, and have taken an appropriate place in importance in regard to an individual’s complete health. Since the early 1940’s, the medical community began officially recognizing the psychological aspects of health as important, and this recognition was culminated in 1946 when the World Health Organization (WHO) officially released their definition of health as: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 1946). The inclusion of “mental and social well-being” was a huge accomplishment for many in the medical field, and served as a type of launching point for the future of psychological studies.
With the importance of mental health in mind, an evaluation of the mine collapse from that perspective is necessary for a full appreciation of the disaster. This is especially true given that almost all aspects of a disaster have a funnel effect that feeds into the psychological aspects of disasters. The mental effects are far reaching, going from those in direct danger, to those working against the disaster, all the way to the family of those affected in any way by the disaster. When all of these aspects are taken into account, a comprehensive analysis can begin.
From the very first instance of the collapse, the disaster was under way mentally, “Psychologically, the worst part, was when they were completely cut off from the outside world and they were struggling with near certain death” according to Dr. Fairbanks of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. He continues, “That is the beginning of their traumatic narrative and was part of the experience with which they now have to deal” (Zimmerman, 2010). Those first seconds, minutes, and hours were the first, and possibly most damaging, part of the miners struggle for survival both physically and psychologically. As Dr. Fairbanks pointed out, these men had to come to terms with the fact that they were almost half a mile below the surface, trapped in a hot, damp, and dark environment, and that they had no way to escape or communicate with the outside world. Not only would this have been extremely stressful, but it would have also been an extremely demoralizing feeling to be completely vulnerable to death and illness unless someone came to their rescue.
The next two weeks would have amounted to be equally unbearable as the miners had no idea if anyone was looking for them, and if they would be able to survive on the meager supplies they had. Because the men made a pact not to disclose what transpired during this time in the mine, all researchers can go off of are the few obvious facts and details which the miners did express. The very thought of: being stuck in an underground shelter with 32 other men, with extremely small amounts of sustenance, lack of adequate lighting, and each individual fighting back the fears of death; these images alone are enough for anyone to feel slightly uneasy. In general, these first two weeks of no contact with the outside world must have been anything but pleasant for those involved.
During the same time as the miners were struggling for their own mental and physical well being, their families were also undergoing unknown ranges of emotions. This is another aspect that few consider, but will be briefly addressed here. Many of the families of the miners, although greatly impacted, took action immediately by going to the mine itself and setting up a camp of sorts. The fact that the Chilean government supported this action is a huge triumph so far as mental health response goes, because the government allowed these family members to be as close as possible to their loved ones. This proximity, although not necessary, served as a great mental relief for many family members (Ellershaw, 2003). Counseling services were also provided to the families during the course of the disaster, which also helped stabilize and support the family members.
After initial contact was made with the trapped miners through the bore hole, a new phase began in the mental stability of the miners; they no longer wondered about survival so much as duration. Although reaching the miners was a huge accomplishment and boosted spirits greatly, it also had the effect of heightening a sense of “stir craziness” and restlessness, which oft times had resulted in reckless behaviors (Dasgupta, 2001). In an insightful move, the Chilean government assigned psychologist Alberto Iturra, “to help support the miners…to talk to them, sometimes several times a day, to sort through their frustrations and depression.” In a further effort to aid the miners while they were stuck below ground, Dr. Iturra consulted with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on planning strategies to avoid long-term negative consequences for the trapped miners. NASA was an excellent resource to tap because they not only staff excellent psychologists, but they are intimately familiar with how to handle small, confined, and isolated instances over long periods of time (Zimmerman, 2010).
The most essential aspect of the disaster from the mental health impact is by far the time the miners were finally liberated from their captivity and through till the present. Appropriately one psychologist stated he, “is especially concerned about the psychological effects…these miners would have been incredibly stressed, and they will need psychological support to recover” (Zimmerman, 2010). The recovery of mental issues is far longer lasting then the recovery of broken bones and wounded flesh, and the monitoring of psychological issues must be all the more vigilant because of the subtle nature of mental illness. “Zvonko Mir, MD, from Reha Klinik Walenstadtberg in Germany, said he is also more concerned about the mental than physical health consequences of the accident. ‘Psychiatric support will be the number 1 concern, in my opinion’” (Zimmerman, 2010).
Alam, S. N. (1990), Perceptions of Flood Among Bangladeshi Villagers. Disasters, 14: 354–357.
Weisæth, L. (1989), The stressors and the post-traumatic stress syndrome after an industrial disaster. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 80: 25–37.
Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.
Ellershaw, John. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), Vol. 326, No. 7379. (4 January 2003), pp. 30-34.
Dasgupta, Partha. Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment, Vol. 1, No. 9. (November 2001), pp. 33-41.
Zimmerman, Ron. Buried Alive: How Will Mental Health of Chilean Miners Fare?, Medscape Medical News. (October, 2010) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/730393