Alan Pike: Expert support needed in the crucial early days of freedom

Psychologist's view
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The Independent Online

First comes the jubilation, then the emotion of a reunion with families after two months apart. But for some, in the weeks to come, there may be a low – and what happens over the next few days will be crucial.

They have been through an unprecedented experience. Very few people can possibly understand what it's been like for them. As the miners reach the surface one by one – and the overwhelming sensory experience of reaching the outdoors again – they are unlikely to be fully prepared for what awaits them despite the preparation and flow of information over recent days.

The initial overwhelming feelings of relief and euphoria knowing that they are safe can last several days before embarking on the task of readjusting to life back in their own homes. Within 48-72 hours, it is important that each of them is given the opportunity to talk and be listened to. If they are looked after and receive expert support in the very early stages, there is no reason why they should not avoid long-term psychological difficulties. But those early days will be crucial.

In many ways the initial signs are positive. Underground they have endured less discomfort than could have been expected of a group trapped below ground for so long, despite the high temperatures and humidity.

It is evident that the organisation of the miners' time, their own contribution to the rescue, and the emergence of an accepted hierarchy within the group have all been key factors in helping them. The significant support from above ground with food, water, clean air, video contact with loved ones and training for first aid will have helped.

However, the news that their rescue was likely to take many weeks would undoubtedly have proved a setback. So a heightened state of anticipation and an eventual explosion of adrenaline-fuelled euphoria when they emerge is likely. The glare of the world's media will add a surreal quality to their experience.

Many people report that the following days and weeks after such experiences feel like a low period; they may develop a temporary lack of motivation, loss of interest in everyday activities, and feel detached from those closest to them. Becoming withdrawn from family and friends is quite common.

Such reactions are normal. Without support, there is the potential for such post-traumatic stress reactions developing into disorder. It is vital the miners do not feel abandoned. We know that a failure to support traumatised individuals can lead to a loss of confidence, depression and other long-term mental health problems.

Each of the miners will have varying needs and views. Some may feel angry, some may feel guilty or feel some responsibility for what happened or how they have responded since. Some might look to the company or government for redress or compensation. Others may turn their back on mining, sensing their vulnerability and having come so close to death.

Many will experience flashbacks and could encounter nightmares. However, some preparation can reassure them that these are normal reactions to a traumatic event, which usually subside as time goes by. Some may not regard the experience as traumatic, having instinctively taken on leadership roles and almost seen their tasks as another day's work, albeit in exceptional circumstances.

Undoubtedly the families will become important in helping the miners recover. Many will not be prepared for the stress resulting from a major traumatic incident such as this. While some people do move on relatively quickly in strong supportive families, the individual miners themselves may for some time be consumed with thoughts about their recent powerful experience, long after their relatives have moved on.

The return to a familiar routine is often helpful and although this may, for some of the group, mean returning to mining, it is work they are familiar with. Others may completely re-evaluate their lives, unsure of what to do for some time.

For some, their faith may play a significant role as they wonder how it was that they escaped this potential disaster. Or their experience could give them a new perspective on what is important in their lives – their families.

Alan Pike is a trauma consultant for the Centre for Crisis Psychology

Chilean miners in numbers

700 metres Distance the miners must travel to surface.

20 minutes Approximate length of the journey up.

21.5 inches Diameter of capsule in which they will travel.

22 pounds Average amount of weight that the miners have lost since they were trapped.

1,200 Number of job offers that have poured in.

300 feet distance journalists are being kept from the exit point.

63 Age of Mario Gomes, the eldest of the group.

£1,000 Monthly salary of the miners.