Chile: solidarity wins out over psychobabble

The 33 miners have not only had to endure seclusion, but also the mean-spiritedness, censorship and disdain of the therapy industry.

Millions of people around the world will crack a smile today as they watch the 33 Chilean miners finally being hoisted back to life. But Those Who Know Better, the overlords of the therapy industry, see something different: not a happy ending to a two-month nightmare, but the start of an even longer nightmare of ill-health, craziness and PTSD for these unfortunate creatures from the dark. According to the experts, what we’re really witnessing in Chile today is a volcanic eruption of human instability, as 33 ticking timebombs of emotional frailty are raised to the surface.

One psycho-expert, echoing an army of others, told Fox News that the rescue of the men will release a ‘cauldron of emotions’; apparently ‘molten, churning reservoirs of emotion are about to emerge from that mine’. And there’s no telling what this geyser of two months worth of repressed feelings will give rise to. Fox’s fortune-teller says it could spawn ‘divorces, violence, terrible despondency, panic attacks, plays for celebrity that fall short and lead to suicide, addiction to alcohol and illicit drugs and gambling, and wild allegations levelled by one miner against another’. For the mental-health lobby, it seems, every silver lining has a cloud.

How will these men who coped remarkably well in a 32 degrees Celsius underground cavern for more than two months now cope with the temptation to descend into a drug-addled world of violence and backstabbing? On this question, the experts are unanimous: as one of them sums it up, the freed 33 will require ‘all the skill of the very best mental-health professionals available’. Is it just me or does this look like a brazen job-creation scheme? At a time of recession and cutbacks, I guess even the mental-health lobby has to find ways to earn a crust - even if that means cynically re-presenting 33 fairly hard, robust miners as men on the verge of a nervous breakdown who will need professional help for the rest of their lives.

The most startling thing about the various psycho-pronouncements being made about the miners is not their undiluted miserabilism, their ability to see future suicides where most of us see a moment of joy, but their ignorance of the facts of the past two months. Because the inconvenient truth is that the 33 miners survived underground not as a result of psychological advice and intervention but by sometimes rebelling against the psychologists who kept a watchful eye on their every move. The real story of the Chilean miners, for anyone who cares to look, is that the interventions of the various wings of the trauma industry often make things worse rather than better, and people are mostly happier and healthier without them.

The on-site psychology team at the San Jose mine treated the trapped men with extraordinary mean-spiritedness. Driven by the conviction that they, as one headline put it, ‘know best’, and backed up by the dime-a-dozen profferings of every headline-hungry psychologist and therapist around the globe, the psychologists saw it as their duty to police the men’s thoughts and even to censor letters from their families in case they triggered ‘problematic emotions’. Such petty authoritarianism is the end result of the deep-rooted idea that life is way too hard and complicated to be negotiated without the words of wisdom of the therapy lobby.

One of the medical experts at San Jose - part of a team of 300 people that oversaw the men’s health and needs - said there was a ‘daily arm wrestle’ between the miners and the psychology team. That isn’t surprising. The mental-health experts overground used a system of ‘prizes and punishments’ to try to control the men’s behaviour - for their own good, of course. So when the men assented to hour-long phone calls with the mental-health team, as they did when they were first found to be alive 17 days after getting trapped, they were rewarded with prizes such as access to TV shows. But when they refused to talk to the psychologists, as they started to do in mid-September when their health and body weight were improving as a result of sent-down food and they insisted that ‘we are well’, the psychology team would deprive them of luxuries. As one on-site doctor put it: ‘We have to say, “OK, you don’t want to speak with psychologists? Perfect. That day you get no TV, there is no music - because we administer these things.”’

The psychology team became judge and jury of what the men could do for enjoyment and even how they could communicate with their families. When the men asked for cigarettes and alcohol, saying that these small pleasures would help them cope better than their daily phone call with the experts, the psychology team begrudgingly agreed to send down cigarettes but not booze - because ‘the average miner consumes large quantities of alcohol’, one of the psychologists said, and there is no telling how they will behave when inebriated in hot, cramped conditions. The men were furious. But only because they don’t understand the dangers of drinking, one of the on-site doctors snootily declared. ‘These are not PhD scientists, they are rough-and-tumble miners’, he said, giving a glimpse into the experts’ deep disdain for the men they were supposed to be helping.

But the thing that really tore the miners and their mental-health betters apart - the thing that ensured ‘the honeymoon was over’, as the lead on-site psychologist put it - was the psychology team’s ‘widespread censorship’ of family letters to the men. Early on, every time a family member wrote a letter it had to be submitted for psychological evaluation first, before being sent down the so-called umbilical cord to the men underground, so that any material judged ‘psychologically inappropriate’ could be removed. There was uproar when the families discovered that there was a backlog of letters waiting to be okayed. One of the miners had asked his wife during a video link-up: ‘Why don’t you write to me anymore?’ In fact she had been writing everyday, but her letters were awaiting ‘psychological approval’. Eventually government officials stepped in and ended the vetting of the letters.

The men rebelled against these measures in any way they could. At one stage they delayed taking vaccines that had been sent down until they got something they wanted. And as they regained weight courtesy of the food sent down the umbilical cord, ‘their antagonism to the daily psychology sessions increased’, as one report put it. That is, the healthier they got, the closer they became through their own methods of bonding, the more they looked upon the psycho-sessions as an unnecessary irritation. Their decision to blank the mental-health team was not a result of stupidity, of their lack of a PhD in science - rather it sprung from a belief that they could cope better on their own, without videophone advice from on high. As a psychiatrist at Chile’s Catholic University put it, ‘If there is one group that is not exactly disposed to psychologists, it is miners’.

Indeed, the men instituted their own systems for coping: they had a leader, they set up a prayer room, they lunched together everyday, worked in shifts to clear rubble, and had a daily ‘showing your cards’ session at which they got things off their chests. That’s far healthier than sharing your problems with a faceless stranger who might ground you or deny you television privileges if you say the ‘wrong thing’. In working together rather than relying on external expert advice, the men reminded us of a truth often forgotten in today’s Oprahite age: mucking in, offering solidarity, is a far better guarantor of survival and happiness than being told how you should feel by aloof know-it-alls.

The way the men were treated was like a microcosm of today’s therapy industry. The censoring of letters spoke to the idea that people are psychologically fragile and easily harmed by other people’s words. The deprivation of certain ‘prizes’ if they didn’t speak to the mental-health team revealed the authoritarian dynamic behind today’s therapeutic interventions. The notion that they wouldn’t survive without external expertise highlighted the general view of all of us as needing guidance from the new gods of emotional correctness. That Fox News expert said the men are ‘just as subject to the laws of psychological gravity as you or I’. In truth, the men broke these so-called, actually non-existent laws of psychological gravity. And in doing so they have shown, implicitly at least, and contrary to every piety of the modern age, that we don’t need expert advice to survive and thrive.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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