Trapped Miners: Advice from Psychologists and Astronauts

The 33 Chilean miners trapped almost half a mile underground probably never dreamed they'd have much in common with astronauts. But their ordeal – survival in a small, cramped place with no discernable day or night – does have a few parallels to space flight, according to people who have worked closely with NASA.

These parallels provide both insights into how to keep the men mentally and physically healthy as well as what kinds of snags they might encounter while they await rescue, including the possibilities of in-group fighting, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

"They're not weightless, the fame and glory of being in space is not there, the training for specific activities to the nth degree is not there," Nick Kanas, a University of California San Francisco psychiatrist who has researched group dynamics in astronauts in close confinement, told LiveScience.

But, Kanas said, "It kind of is like the typical thing where astronauts go up being trained and expecting that they might have problems."

Missing since Aug. 5, the miners were feared dead until Aug. 22, when they managed to send up a written message on a drill manned by rescuers. That note, which read "All 33 of us in the shelter are well," triggered mass celebration in Chile, but attention soon turned to the task of keeping the miners happy and healthy during the three to four months it will take to drill a rescue shaft.

This week, the Chilean government asked NASA for advice on medical, nutritional and behavioral supports to keep the miners nourished physically and psychologically, a NASA spokesman told LiveScience. The government has also reportedly brought in Chilean Navy submarine commanders for their expertise on survival in dark, cramped spaces.

Keeping up communications

"What's probably the most important thing right now is that the family is giving them support, sending notes down," said Phyllis Johnson, a family sociologist at the University of British Columbia who studies families where one member works in a far-flung location like space. "And that they're there nearby and that the miners know that they're nearby."

Communication with the outside world will go a long way toward easing the strain of the ordeal, predicted Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut who spent six and a half months aboard the International Space Station in 2004 and 2005. Phone calls and e-mails to his family and friends were very important during that time, he said.

Rescuers are now working to establish a permanent communication system through a borehole the size of a grapefruit. No matter what, Johnson said, it's critical that rescuers and families coordinate to be sure all the miners hear from someone regularly.

"There may be some single miners there, and you don't want a situation where some miners are hearing from families and others are not," she said.

Avoiding idle hands

The other key to staying sane in an isolated environment is meaningful work, Chiao said. On long-duration spaceflights, astronauts' days are carefully scheduled. The Chilean miners don't have any scientific experiments or high-tech repairs to keep them busy, but they can work on improving their section of the mine, Chiao said.

"One of the lessons was to keep improving your environment. Keep working to improve your shelter," Chiao said, referring to survival training. "That'll keep you busy, keep your mind from wandering where you don't want it to go."

Already, the miners are being given tasks like digging latrines and exercising to stay fit for their eventual rescue, which will involve raising them one-by-one through a hole able to accommodate no more than a 35-inch (89-centimeter) waist. Chilean officials also plan to lower card games, dominoes and perhaps some sort of television down the borehole, according to news reports. Already, the miners have sent up video showing what one called their "casino," complete with makeshift domino game.

Anything that breaks up monotony will boost morale, UC San Francisco's Kanas said.

"If they can give any kind of fun foods, or some kind of treats or surprise presents, that has worked well with cosmonauts," Kanas said. Music, personalized messages from movie stars, and surprise calls by family are other options.

Making a bond

Isolation can beget tension, but it can also lead to bonding, Kanas said.

Researchers have noticed that people trapped together often take out their frustrations on outside groups rather than each other, Kanas said. It's a phenomenon called "displacement." Astronauts, for example, have to depend on each other in life-threatening situations. So when things go wrong, they tend to direct their anger at Mission Control instead of at one another. Displacement keeps the group together, but it could be bad news if the miners stop cooperating with rescuers.

One way to avoid such tensions is for the people at the surface to listen to the miners, Chiao said. During his stint on the space station, there was a food shortage that required rationing. The astronauts "upstairs," as Chiao called it, tried to keep a sense of humor about the situation. But on the ground, NASA forbade Mission Control from joking about the shortage with the crew.

"Why does the ground think they know better than the crew upstairs what they want?" he said. "Listen to what they're asking for and try to provide it."

In a group of 33 men, cliques may form as the ordeal drags along, Kanas said. That could be bad if tensions between groups lead to infighting, but the opportunity to vent about one another could help them blow off steam and keep small annoyances from boiling over.

"When you have a big group, sometimes you form subgroups and they can kind of deal internally with their frustration," Kanas said.

Trauma and recovery

In the long run, the biggest risk to the miners may be their mental health. Unlike astronauts, the miners didn't volunteer for their confinement. Nor do they have much control over their fate. Given the danger they still face, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a risk, said Yuval Neria, the director of the Trauma and PTSD program at New York State Psychiatric Institute and a professor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center.

"We are talking about isolation, threat to life, uncertainty," Neria said.

The lack of food and fresh air can also take a toll on mental health. Taber MacCallum, the CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, experienced a fraction of what the miners were going through during his two-year mission in Biosphere 2, an enclosed ecological system designed to research environmental questions.

"In my experience it was sort of a bit like clinical depression," MacCallum said. "You have to be very, very careful with your energy, and not overexert yourself."

Support from the surface can give the miners a sense of control and lessen the risk of mental health problems, Neria said. Rescuers reportedly plan to send antidepressants to the men, who were just told today that their rescue could take months. After the rescue, the miners should be watched closely for signs of anxiety, depression and PTSD, Neria said.

Miners who are able to stay functional and engaged during the ordeal will likely do better once they're rescued, Neria said.

According to Chiao, there's reason to think that the miners will be able to stay tough.

"It sounds like they've got some strong leadership down there, which is really good," Chiao said. "The fact that they were able to ration a couple days of food and stretch it to 17, that tells me they're a disciplined group."

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.