The world watched the fate of the 33 miners and on October 12, 2010 they were all rescued. I was on CCTV-9 News (Chinese TV that also airs in the United States on Time Warner cable systems), about the psychological meaning of the experience. Here are some questions they asked me, as well as others about the emotional issues and psychological impact involved in this amazing story.
Q: The plight of the miners and their rescue has attracted the whole world's attention. Why do we care so much about this?
A: People of all ages and cultures have been united in the miner’s experience because we all know the experience of trauma or being trapped on some level, and so we are so relieved to have such a “happy ending.” We all wish for miracles to end our suffering and the successful rescue of the trapped miners makes us feel hopeful that such miracles can happen. Their story brings hope, inspiration, solidarity, pride and faith in the face of enormous suffering shared by people across the world (like the earthquakes in Haiti and China, the flood in Pakistan, and even the financial crisis) as well an individual traumas (illnesses, job stress, family problems). Watching their rescue makes us vicariously experience that we too can be “saved.”
Q: Are there deeper psychological issues?
A. Yes. On a deep psychological level, the miners being trapped taps into early childhood fears of being lost or even of being buried alive (as some scenes in movies have shown). Also, the rescue of the miners revives fairy tales read as children about being rescued (like the Prince Charming did for Cinderella) and story endings that we can come “back from the dead”.
Q: What are the major psychological problems the miners may face in the days to come?
A: They will likely go through a range of emotions. Of course they first feel jubilant and relieved (like everyone in the world who celebrates with them). But in the aftermath, as in all traumas, they can go through re-experiencing fears, especially at night in the dark or when enclosed in small places like an elevator or even a car. They can also feel isolated, as if no one except their group, can understand how they feel. Immediately after their rescue, they are being flooded with attention not only from loved ones, but from people around the world, the government, and media, but once they have to go back to “normal” life, and once invitations to Presidential palaces fade, they can have emotional swings, including depression and anger. While they were initially reported as being psychologically well, memories and symptoms can emerge later (even years later), which can dangerously lead to withdrawal, problems at work or in relationships, or worse, addictions to drugs or alcohol. They need to have support from health professionals along their path of recovery, and access to help for years to come. Their experience can be like “war shock” of veterans of battle.
The psychological stages can morph from immediate jubilation to alternating emotions that include feeling of pride for being a survivor or inner shame for having experienced fear or losing hope. Despite having been rescued, it did take many days, which can lead to anger that it took so long. They may be ecstatic to be re-united with loved ones but also feel isolated, thinking even loved ones cannot truly understand what they went through. Also, while they are being called heroes, some may not feel that way inside.
Q: Should they talk about their experience?
A: Research suggests that whether people should discuss their trauma depends on their coping style. Not all people benefit from “debriefing,” and can be re-traumatized by going over details of their experience. Yet, some people are helped by talking about what they went through. It is crucial to know whether the person wants to talk or not. Also, mental health professionals are essential to help people process such trauma.
Q: What about their family members? They were actually suffering with their loved ones trapped underground during the whole rescue process. How will they be dealing with the experiences?
Q: There is talk about the miners writing a book together. Should they?
A: The miners writing a book together would be a way for them to process the experience together to develop what’s called a “collective memory” and to continue to be in contact with each other for ongoing group support. But they must be prepared to re-experience the trauma, and realize that they can have different reactions. If some do not want to participate, they should be allowed to decline.
Such a book will helpful to the public, to collectively process the experience, to gain further insight into how they coped, and to serve as an inspiration for overcoming traumas of all kind.
Q: Does the miner’s age make a difference in how they adjust?
A: Older miners have the possibility of coping because they have had more experience with adversity. But resilience (the ability to “bounce back”) is a personal matter and depends on factors like past coping with problems and available support from others. Some older miners took a leadership role, which can give them confidence; others may feel they did not do enough in the group process.
Q: Should the miners go back to work?
A: Some may want to go right back to work, like “getting right back in the saddle” when you have fallen off a horse. Others may need time and distance from the experience. None should be forced to return to work. While it can be helpful to “get back to normal” life will not be normal for a while for them, especially with so much attention.
Q. Many children watched the process on TV, whether purposely or simply in passing. What are their reactions and how can they be helped?
A: Children need special attention now, to be reassured that they are safe since their fears about being lost themselves, or about losing their parent may be exacerbated by this experience. Parents should watch for symptoms like trouble sleeping, nightmares, fear of the dark, and especially refusal to go to school (for fear something will happen to their parents while they are away).
Q: What can we learn from this experience?
A: We can certainly be reassured that even the most severe of challenges, anxieties and anguish can be faced and overcome, that others care, that faith matters, that there is hope in the face of extreme adversity and that life is precious.