Thirty-three men trapped in a collapsed Chilean gold and copper mine will have to sit tight for four months as rescuers drill an escape route. The miners are living in an underground chamber about 540 square feet in size—slightly smaller than the average studio apartment in New York City. Chilean authorities have called in NASA to help deal with the physical and mental health effects of prolonged confinement. How do psychologists keep people in tight quarters from getting depressed?
With surprise gifts and private time. When living in a confined area with the same people for months on end, interpersonal tensions and monotony can easily push you over the edge. The most common symptoms are feelings of resentment toward other group members, withdrawal from social interactions, and displacement—anger redirected at innocent outsiders. Anxiety occasionally manifests itself in physical symptoms. A Russian cosmonaut once experienced tooth pain after dreaming of a dental infection and realizing there was no treatment available. The Russian space agency reportedly ended another mission early after one member began experiencing psychosomatic symptoms like fatigue and listlessness. Prolonged periods of confinement also tend to bring out underlying psychological issues. On submarines and Antarctic research missions, between 3 percent and 5 percent of people experience the onset of serious mental health disorders like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Claustrophobia seems to be less of a problem than social conflicts and boredom in these situations. Researchers overwintering in Antarctica show the same psychological effects of their isolation as astronauts and submarine crews, even though they aren’t stuck in tiny spaces all day.
To stave off the confinement blues, psychologists suggest regular contact with family members, unexpected treats like musical instruments and video games, and comfort food like candy bars. The victims of confinement are also instructed to establish a private space, however small it might be, so they can have some alone time. NASA encourages astronauts to distract themselves with hobbies and play games during their space station missions, which can last several months. The strategies appear to be working—studies of crews on the Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station from the 1990s and early 2000s suggest today’s space travelers have better mental hygiene than their predecessors.
(Psychologists are most concerned about confinements that last six weeks or more. When you know exactly how long you’ll be stuck in your box, mental health issues tend to develop at the halfway point, when it’s clear exactly how much time you have left. Researchers sometimes call this “third-quarter syndrome.”)
One of the first things NASA will likely do in Chile is counsel the miners to set aside a space in a connecting shaft for those who want to spend a little time alone. They may even suggest a schedule for private time. Mental health assessments will also be a priority. Astronauts have regular one-on-one sessions with psychologists over the videoconference system, during which they are asked about their overall well-being, their attitudes toward their colleagues, and feelings about ground control. (Displaced astronaut anger is often directed at Houston.) Some space-age assessment tools will not be available to the miners, though. For example, the Russian space agency monitors most cosmonaut communications for increases in the rate or pitch of their speech—indicators of anxiety. (Studies on the usefulness of this technique are inconclusive.) If signs of depression or anxiety develop, ground control intensifies counseling and other interactions with earthlings.
Authorities have already provided the miners with iPods and digital cameras. They may lower two other coping tools into the chamber, if they haven’t already: mood-stabilizing drugs and physical restraints like handcuffs. Both may be used by miners in the event that one of their colleagues becomes a danger to himself or others.
AP Video: Rescuing the Chilean miners:
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Explainer thanks Nick Kanas of UCSF, author of Space Psychology and Psychiatry.
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