Will life ever be the same for Chilean miners?

By Olivia Lang
BBC News

Image caption,
The group of 33 miners has survived underground for more than two months

First will come the euphoria - the overflowing relief, the fizzing emotions of wives, girlfriends, parents and children, and the conviviality and celebration of a successful rescue.

But after the party, the 33 Chilean miners will have to face the prospect of a return to their day-to-day lives, which will have been irrefutably changed forever.

For more than two months, the men have been living 700m beneath the earth's surface.

If all goes to plan, they will endure an intense, nerve-wracking 20-minute journey strapped into a tiny cage - only to face the reality of emotional families and the scrutiny of the media.

But in the wake of the long period of isolation and darkness, what happens when they finally come up for air?

'Sleepless nights'

Psychologists say the experience will be difficult to internalise, and some may suffer from post-traumatic stress as they try to re-adjust to ordinary life.

Dr James Thompson, a senior psychology lecturer at University College London, says he would expect the "sheer relief and happiness of getting out will carry them over the next few weeks".

Image caption,
The miners have been used to a controlled diet and daily routine

But after that, he says, depression or other symptoms could catch up with them.

"It could be the memories of the event still cause them sleepless nights, that their sleep is disturbed, that they find themselves thinking of the event very, very frequently," he says.

"There will be things that trigger thinking the event, feelings, smells - the smell of earth or the clanking of a drill. They will find to their surprise that even though they are out of the mine, they will feel that physically they are still in it."

"If they've had a feeling of the probability of dying… there will be an enormous amount of emotional tension," he adds.

According to Dr Thompson, about one third of those who experience a severe trauma will show psychological effects, but for professionals like emergency workers, this figure falls to five per cent.

As the miners are accustomed to hard conditions already, he believes it will be somewhere between those figures who will experience problems.

While the men have remained generally jovial in front of the media, the extent of their ordeal has been evident in letters written to their families.

"This hell is killing me," one of those trapped, Victor Segovia, a 48-year-old electrician, told his family.

"I try to be strong but when I sleep suddenly I dream we are in an oven and when I wake I find myself in this eternal darkness."

'Shared adversity'

But psychologists say the solidarity between the miners, who have had to team up underground for their own survival, would most likely help the recovery process.

"If people experience adversity and they share it, then that's how you get through," says Dr Christopher Findlay, a psychiatrist specialising in trauma. He says the miners' time underground may have given some a chance to process some of their ordeal.

Image caption,
Psychologists say it will also be difficult for friends and families

"Some of them may have had a shocking time so it may mean a delayed reaction, but they might have started to recover already."

He says what they experience now will depend on any pre-existing mental health trouble, perhaps traumatic experiences from childhood or earlier mining incidents, which could return due to the stress.

"Once you get into a safe place, this is when you activate the memories," he says.

He adds: "If they had difficulties in their support networks already - their relationships might be threatened. There is a lot in that process of reintegration".

As such, families should not have unrealistic expectations, according to Dr Thompson.

"Even in intact relationships, there is a difference because the families have gone through a lot. There is a tendency for families to idealise what is going to happen next.

"People have got to learn that that will not happen," he says.

Speaking to the BBC after the Chilean miners were discovered alive, Brant Webb, who was trapped in an Australian mine for two weeks in 2006, said he and his family found it hard to return to normal life after his experience.

"I can't see a bird in a cage. If I do, I want to let it out," he said. "The after effects of being trapped is the worst time... you keep going back to that place. My family probably went through a worse time than I did.

"These men who are trapped in this mine will never be the same again."


Having been in something akin to a reality TV show, returning to normal life will not be easy.

The miners have had fame thrust upon them, whether they wanted it or not, and as they surface from the mine, some 2,000 journalists will be jostling for a scoop.

The men have already felt the merits of their celebrity status. Officials have announced that the men will be given a pair of protective Oakley sunglasses when they reach the surface - highlighting potential product endorsement deals they may attract.

Image caption,
The miners will find themselves at the centre of worldwide media interest

The men, who were previously earning about $1,000 (£630) a month, have also been offered media and book deals - not to mention job offers.

"It's not only bright lights, it's millions of jabbering people. Millions of people, prodding and poking them," says Dr Thompson.

The men have been living in a kind of bubble, accustomed to regulated meals, exercise routines and shift patterns.

When they are free, Dr Thompson says, they will finally be able to express their emotions after a long time in a controlled environment.

"This is decompression from a situation where everyone had to mind their behaviour to survive," he says.

According to reports, the group have come to a legal agreement whereby all the miners agree to share the profits from their story equally.

But the issue still might fracture the bonds later on, says Dr Thompson, if feelings of resentment emerge. For example, if others end up earning a better deal two years or so down the line.

As recognition of the problems they could face, the miners will receive a psychiatric consultation immediately after leaving the mine, and they will also be offered psychiatric treatment for six months, if they want it.

But Dr Findlay believes that, "most of it [readjustment] will be informal, talking to peers and family".

"Most people will recover in that natural process," he says.