Trapped Miners Face Dangerous Isolation

The survival of the 33 miners trapped in Chile will depend largely on their mental and physical ability to live for months in a confined space, with no fresh air, privacy or sunlight and limited food and water. Host Scott Simon talks with Larry Palinkas about mental and physical challenges for the miners.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The miners' survival will depend largely on their mental and physical ability to live for months in a confined space, with no fresh air, no privacy, sunlight, and limited food and water. Professor Lawrence Palinkas has studied the way people adapt to extreme environments. He's a professor of social policy and health at the University of Southern California. He joins us from Studio West in San Diego. And Professor Palinkas, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor LAWRENCE PALINKAS (University of Southern California): It's a pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: We saw some video of the miners inside the rescue shelter this week, and they, considering all, they seem to be in good spirits. And somebody is seen on that video explaining how they've kind of organized the space into separate areas - sleeping, recreation, praying. Is this a healthy human reaction?

Mr. PALINKAS: Actually, it is. And I take those activities as a very positive sign for how they're responding to the situation, because they're dealing not only with the current environmental conditions but also the aftermath of the trauma of the cave-in itself. And the fact that they can organize themselves that way is a very good indicator of how well they'll do.

SIMON: In your field of discipline, recognizing that first and last this is a compelling human story with real lives in the balance, are you looking for certain kind of patterns of behavior to emerge?

Mr. PALINKAS: Yes, I am. I mean, even though circumstances of prolonged isolation and confinement may differ, even though the nature of the environmental stress may differ, that over the years we've seen groups like this go through fairly consistent patterns of trying to adjust to their circumstances.

So for example, many of them are likely to experience varying degrees of depression or anxiety, difficulty sleeping, especially since they won't have access to sunlight. They'll also be experiencing difficulties with their cognitive functioning - paying attention, their short-term memory may be impaired. And there may also be irritability and anger, both at their fellow workers and at even the people who are attempting to rescue them.

SIMON: I mean this quite seriously: Should they be medicated?

Mr. PALINKAS: No, not necessarily. There may be some individuals who are particularly vulnerable to the stress and anxiety that they're experiencing right now. And medication may be warranted, except for the fact that there really is no physician with them who can monitor their behavior under medication. I think they're more likely to benefit from some form of counseling, if there's a secure and private form of communication with the psychologists and psychiatrists who are apparently at the site.

SIMON: I mean, when I think of this story, I find myself wondering if in the end it's "Das Boot" or "Lord of the Flies." Which is to say, if a group of people operating under immense pressure in a confined space identify with each other's survival and survive brilliantly, or do they fall to grief and not end up so well?

Mr. PALINKAS: In some respects the fact that they have self-selected, the fact that they may also be a very resilient group of individuals, because it's hard not to be and continue to work underground like this, I think speaks to their ability to cope with the situation.

One of the things we've also found over the years is that people not only cope with situations like this but they actually gain some psychological benefits, that individuals who find that they can manage well under these conditions inevitably begin to feel much more - better about themselves, better about their ability to perform other kinds of tasks and experience other kinds of stressful situations.

So that while there are opportunities for a "Lord of the Flies" situation, as you so eloquently put it, there are also other opportunities for psychological growth and development.

SIMON: I mean, it occurs to me, with limited amount of light they probably can't read, they can't listen to music. Diversions in a dark space like that have got to be limited.

Mr. PALINKAS: They undoubtedly are quite limited. And the opportunities for social interaction, even among the crew members themselves, are going to be constrained by the fact that they're all going through the same stress. So it's not like they can spend a lot of time talking about their predicament and hoping to derive support by doing so in a way that's similar to, for example, talking to a family member who's still on the surface about what they're going through.

SIMON: Well, if there's a happy result, this incident might rewrite all the textbooks in your field, I suppose.

Mr. PALINKAS: Well, it could very well be. As unfortunate as this event is, I'm certain that there are important lessons that we can learn about human adaptation and human resilience in the face of such great adversity.

SIMON: Professor Lawrence Palinkas of the University of Southern California, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PALINKAS: My pleasure, Scott.

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