Paul Vallely: An ordeal that won't end when they see daylight

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Hell, said Sartre, is other people. After the elation of establishing contact with the outside world the 33 Chilean miners now must come to terms with a more protracted reality – how long it will take to dig the shaft which will bring them to the surface. It will mean finding ways to survive up to four months in the claustrophobic company of others.

Psychologists had suggested that the men, who have already been trapped underground longer than almost anyone in history, should not be told that it could take until Christmas to rescue them. But these miners understand the nature of their predicament better than most. The eldest, Mario Gomez, 63, acknowledged that in the note he sent up to his wife in an aside which began: "Even if we have to wait months to communicate... "

And if they understand the physical problems, they have the insights of experience on the psychological challenges they face.

Outsiders have suggested they will face depression, despair and near-murderous tensions. The former hostage Brian Keenan, who endured four-and-a-half years in a darkened prison as a hostage in Beirut, yesterday warned that personality clashes and squabbles would occur as insignificant niggles gained a disproportionate importance and became causes of dispute. "Inevitable psychological breakdowns" would come, he wrote, "with different intensities at different times."

But other experts in psychological trauma suggest that these fears may be overstated. Miners are individuals who have learned to live with the classic human fear of being buried alive. These are men who are used to spending time in closely confined spaces with one another. They are living now in an emergency safety chamber in conditions similar to those faced by submarine crews or astronauts on the international space station.

"This group is so hardened and well-prepared I think they will just hunker down and wait," says Dr Michael Reddy, a clinical psychologist and chairman of Independent Counselling and Advisory Services, a British-based international private network of psychologists specialising in trauma. Dr Reddy believes the size of the group, far from being a problem, is an advantage in terms of group dynamics. He says: "There will be a community spirit and plenty of people able to stabilise any little outbreaks of tension between individuals."

Dr Reddy draws parallels between the miners and members of the Fire Service, with which he has worked. "They go out and put themselves into perilous situations, and put their lives in one another's hands," he says. "In the case of fire officers when they come back from a fire and debrief one of the elements of their debrief is to slag each other off; it's not a joke but it's a process where everyone understands the rules of the game. These miners will have developed similar intuitive techniques to master their own internal anxieties while maintaining stability within the group."

This ability has been developed partly through the work they do, thinks Dr Reddy. "But it also comes from the close-knit kind of community in which they live, something we have lost an understanding of in the individualistic West where friendship is about how many people you have on Facebook," he says. Brian Keenan agrees with that. "These miners will be more resourceful at a psychological level than if they had been pulled out of a cosy urban environment," he wrote.

But if anxieties for the sanity of the entombed men may be overstated, the Chilean authorities organising the rescue effort have been offered plenty of other advice. An exercise regimen is important for the men:

*Isometric exercises – pushing against the shelter walls to work the muscles – will not just slow down the wasting of the muscles. It will also prevent unused energy from being transformed into aggression or depression.

*They should turn on and off their lighting to mimic the cycle of day and night.

*A programme of activities, such as clearing rubble and cleaning, should be put in place to create a positive task-orientated mood.

*And they should be fed a steady supply of positive information and photographs from their families and about the progress of the rescue effort.

But while it is important not to let families or rescuers pass on negative information, it is essential that the men are not given over-optimistic information. Building trust is essential, says Dr Lesley Peekman-Kerr, another psychological trauma specialist. "If they tell the trapped men something false in an effort to comfort them, then trust will be broken," she says, "and it is vital that the men trust completely what they're being told."

The real psychological issues will not come underground, most experts agree, but when the men are pulled back to the surface. "A proportion of them can expect chronic anxiety years later," says Dr James Thompson, a senior psychology lecturer at University College London. "They will feel sad, anxious, have sleep problems and have more time off than their colleagues."

The memory of their ordeal may remain with them for the rest of their life, says Todd Russell, who spent two weeks trapped underground in a safety cage almost a kilometre below the surface in a gold mine in Tasmania four years ago. He said recently that he has still not recovered from the experience. "It's going to be very hard for those guys," he says.

But right now how they will cope when they all see daylight once again is a problem the 33 men will be only too pleased to face.

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