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Staying sane when trapped by disaster

world Updated: Sep 02, 2010 00:00 IST
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The lessons that could help keep 33 trapped Chilean miners safe and sane during their months underground were learned at desperate times in isolated places: ice-bound sailing ships, prisoner-of-war camps, malfunctioning capsules whizzing through space.

They include: Don't over-promise. Keep track of night and day — even if you can't see daylight. Encourage friendships — but watch out for cliques. Let everybody have privacy — but don't let anybody become a loner.

And remember the keys to survival in what psychologists call “extreme environments”: Entertainment. Structure. Hope.

“I'm very optimistic this group will be able to stay stable for a long time,” said Col. Thomas A. Kolditz of the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at the US Military Academy.

Mental health experts say boredom and time, if not handled correctly, can be dangerous.

The men have been trapped in a tunnel deep underground since a collapse at the San Jose mine August 5.

On Tuesday, NASA, which was called in to consult because of its experience in preparing astronauts for isolation, said it was working with Chilean officials on rescue plans.

One key lesson is to keep up the rhythms of day and night. Another maxim for those communicating with the miners from the surface, is that honesty is crucial. Experts said keeping dispiriting information from the miners could carry risks.

Many of the starkest lessons are taken from the polar expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Alison Levine, a polar and Mount Everest expeditions veteran said, “I so wish I could talk to those miners and tell them about Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic voyage. If they knew that 27 men survived for 20 months in the harshest conditions known to man, with no contact with the outside world and no immediate hope of a rescue, I think these miners would know that they could get through this,” said.

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