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Anxiety, Cave-In Concerns Among Mental Hurdles for Chilean Miners

August 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The good news that 33 trapped Chilean miners were still alive was soon tempered by the possibility that they may not be rescued until Christmas. Judy Woodruff speaks with University of Southern California professor Lawrence Palinkas about the psychological hurdles ahead for the miners.

JEFFREY BROWN: Judy Woodruff takes it from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the psychological effect of such extreme confinement for an extended period of time?For that, we’re joined by Lawrence Palinkas.He’s professor of social policy and health at the University of Southern California.He has studied how people live under conditions of isolation and confinement in Antarctica and outer space.

Professor Palinkas, thank you very much for talking with us.

LAWRENCE PALINKAS, Professor of Social Policy and Health, University of Southern California:It’s a pleasure to be here, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does their situation compare with other extreme situations you have studied or been familiar with?

LAWRENCE PALINKAS: Well, there are some similarities, and there are some differences.They are going to be undergoing an extended period of isolation and confinement.The environmental conditions will be quite severe.Similar to being at the South Pole, for example, they will be deprived of sunlight and will have very little sense of day and night.

But, on the other hand, many people who go on polar expeditions or astronauts in space know what they’re getting into when the expedition begins.These miners, on the other hand, had very little understanding of the likelihood of being under the ground for four months when they went in for the day of work. The uncertainty as to how long it will take for the rescue to occur is also a significant difference compared to other isolated and confined situations where a mission has a very defined temporal parameter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How will the uncertainty affect them, do you think?

LAWRENCE PALINKAS: Well, it will certainly lead to anxiety.It will lead to fear.The longer they are under the ground, the greater the likelihood of an additional cave-in, for an example, or disruption in the supply of food and water.Certainly, not knowing what’s the progress being made with respect to rescue efforts, what’s happening to family and friends on the surface, will also be a source of concern for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the fact that there are 33 of them, that there’s a group of them, affect do you think that makes it somewhat better for their circumstances or not?

LAWRENCE PALINKAS: Well, it can work in one of two ways.On the one hand, larger groups do seem to adapt or adjust better to conditions of isolation and confinement.

On the other hand, it creates the possibility of the formation of subgroups or cliques.Workers who find a certain affinity or identification with one another, who tend to spend more time with one another, that creates the possibility of conflict or tension within the group as a whole.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What advice if you were asked, Professor Palinkas, what advice would you offer to the to the rescuers and others who are communicating with them?

LAWRENCE PALINKAS: Well, I think there are three specific things that could potentially be done to aid the workers during the period of time that they’re under the ground.

The first relates to the leadership of the group itself.Now, I understand the miners have elected someone within their ranks to represent them, but it’s really that person who plays a pivotal role in keeping the group together and minimizing the possibility of conflict, of tension within the group.

It also helps to facilitate the ability of individuals to cope with their circumstances and to adjust appropriately.However, that’s going to take a lot of support on the part of the rescuers to assist that individual.So, providing advice, guidance, and information is going to be absolutely critical.

A second thing that I might recommend is psychological support, even if it occurs, you know, 700 meters away above the surface.NASA, for example, has successfully had a program for years whereby their operational support personnel at Johnson Space Center have sent care packages to astronauts aboard the space station that not only give them a link to home, but an ability to cope with whatever stressors they happen to be experiencing in space.

Something similar to that, I think, is probably feasible in these circumstances as well.

And then the third thing that I might recommend, which it seems the rescuers are already beginning to adopt, is being very open and forthright with the miners about the prospects of rescue, when it’s likely to occur, and anything that might actually facilitate or impede that progress.

One of the greatest risks that a group like this might experience is the lack of trust with the people they are depending upon to rescue them.And anything that might interfere with the existing trust or even the things that might serve to help the group to adapt for example, by displaying their own anxiety on the rescuers is something that the rescuers need to take into consideration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the fact that they have been told, we understand, how long this is likely to take, you’re saying is a good thing?

LAWRENCE PALINKAS: I believe it is.Inevitably, even with 2,000 feet of rock separating you, information about the progress or lack of progress is going to be made available to the miners, perhaps through inadvertent messages that family members provide them.And the fact that they know that they can trust the rescuers to provide them with accurate and up-to-date information will enable them, I think, to be better prepared for whatever may happen in the next few months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Lawrence Palinkas, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE PALINKAS: You’re quite welcome.