This is a story of resilience, not despair

Why was the mental-health lobby so quick to diagnose depression in the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground?

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

Rescuers had almost given up. The hopes of friends and families were fading. It was hard to be anything but pessimistic: the 33 miners trapped by the earthquake-induced rock falls in the San Jose gold and copper mine in northern Chile had been missing for over two weeks. Even if they had managed to find their way to one of the refuge chambers miles deep in the mine, food, water and oxygen were limited. Things looked bleak.

But then, on 22 August, one of the rescue team’s drills returned with a note attached: ‘Estasmos bien en el refugio los 33.’ ‘The 33 of us in the shelter are well.’

The immediate response to the news was celebratory – but it didn’t last. The delight of those first days has given way to depression: depression in the media; depression among Chilean politicians; and, if the assembled experts have their way, depression among the miners. In the words of Chilean health minister Jaime Manalich: ‘The euphoria of the initial contact on Sunday will likely give way to a period of depression and anguish.’ He added: ‘We are preparing drugs for that.’

The principal reason for this switch in moods stems from the news that the miners are unlikely to be reunited with their families for quite a while. In fact, the 29-ton hydraulic boring machine brought in for the rescue mission will take anywhere between three and four months to reach the miners, imprisoned, as they are, 700 metres below the Earth’s surface. Whichever way you look at it, that is a long time to be trapped in a small, 130-square-foot chamber with 32 other people, no sunlight and non-existent sanitation.

Yet none of this in itself explains the rush to the anti-depressant cabinet. The miners’ prolonged entrapment may be the prompt for fears about their mental health, but there is no reason to think that the entrapment will automatically lead to a debilitating breakdown. In fact, by all accounts the miners are coping as well as can be expected. Paula Newman, the doctor in charge of monitoring their health, has said that none of them is traumatised and that they are complaining far less than she expected them to. Even the health minister, Manalich, a man not averse to diagnosing depression, has said that the mood of the miners has improved in the last few days, despite their finding out how long the rescue mission could take. ‘In the medical report this morning’, he said, ‘we were very happy to see signs of evident recovery and that their supposed depression has been completely overcome’.

It seems that the downcast reports and endless commentaries from behavioural health experts and psychologists reveal less about the trapped miners than they do about today’s diminished expectations of people in general. Confronting an admittedly very difficult, very taxing situation, it is assumed that people will not be able to cope – certainly not without the helping hand of psychiatrists.

There has been no shortage of depression-fostering coverage. ‘It was a week of celebrations that could not last’, opened a typically portentous article in the Observer. ‘Officials’, the article continued, ‘are struggling to keep the men from sinking into a spiral of depression’. Elsewhere, Newsweek wondered simply: ‘How will the Chilean miners stay sane?’ The answer, it seems, is with the psychological help of qualified experts plus a load of anti-depressants.

Psychology Today preferred to see the miners’ plight as universally illustrative – not of human resilience, but of human fragility. ‘Our culture’, it said, ‘presents depression as something that happens to the weak: the person with the bad gene, the bad brain, or the bad coping skills. The miners’ predicament casts depression in a far more universal light. Just how much adversity can a person – even a strong, courageous, and resourceful person – take? Do we all have a breaking point?’

Of course, it will undoubtedly be very tough for the miners. With water trickling down the walls and ambient temperatures of 97 degrees, it is damp and hot. And given the size of the refuge chamber, it will also be cramped and uncomfortable. According to reports, a few of the miners are already suffering from dermatological problems due to the conditions. So while rescue workers are using three narrow shafts – or more accurately tubes – to send essential supplies down to the miners, from food to quick-dry clothing, the 33 men still have an awful lot with which to contend.

But then again, they are people who have already proved their toughness, their resilience, their ability to cope in extremely difficult conditions. They subsisted for two weeks by each consuming two spoonfuls of tuna, a biscuit, and a few sips of milk every 48 hours. They also located trickles of water and rigged up a rudimentary lighting system from a truck battery. And they did all this with no certainty of rescue. Yes, there may be periods when individuals get fed up and miserable. But nothing is out of their hands; there is no automatic slip into the psychologists’ world of depression, no breaking point beyond which they cannot be brought back. The miners – helped by messages from the surface – will no doubt help one another through the dark periods, just as they had been doing even before it was discovered that they were still alive.

And for this, they should be admired. The story of the Chilean miners ought to be a story of resilience, of people’s ability to overcome dire situations. Yet where many initially saw hope, too many commentators and self-styled experts now expect despair.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World


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