NASA Shrink Offers Insight on Plight of Trapped Miners

One might not immediately draw a comparison between miners trapped underground and astronauts living aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but in fact, the two situations have much in common. Both involve isolated locations with multiple persons occupying very close quarters for long periods of time, and in which hazards to health and survival are always present.

The on-going plight of the 33 trapped, Chilean miners has made news around the world. Efforts to sustain and ultimately rescue the miners continue but by all accounts a full rescue from the mine will take months. The hourly and daily stress of trying to stay alive, and the uncertainty of a successful rescue, will exact a heavy psychological toll on these men. Recently, NASA adviser and UCSF professor of psychiatry Nick Kanas offered his key insights and advice on successfully coping with and surviving through this prolonged confinement.

NASA adviser and UCSF psychiatrist Nick Kanas, writing in an op-ed in Monday’s NY Times, lists the crucial factors needed to maintain good mental health in isolated, confined spaces for prolonged periods of time, based upon space and extreme habitation psychological studies…factors which will become more crucial to the Chilean miners as time passes.

Not surprisingly, professor Kanas gives top listing to staying connected via maintaining outside communication. Citing studies of  long-term Antarctic missions, the professor notes what came to be called the “third quarter” phenomenon, wherein depression and anxiety set in amongst crew members after a mission’s half-way point. The professor notes also that this was rare on board Space Station Alpha, and with the Russian Mir missions, due to the fact that crew members had near constant radio contact with people back on Earth–including members of their family and friends.

Kanas goes on to list other expected behaviors and factors that will come into play as the months proceed. One such behavior is displacement of miners’ anger onto “outsiders” (those above ground in the case of miners, or mission control in the case of astronauts).

Another likelihood is that the group of men will form sub-groups based upon similar interests and values. Such sub-groups could be the recipients of some of that displaced anger too, so Kanas emphasizes the importance of  seeing themselves, and those above ground, as all being members of a team, and, he stresses the need for supporting the leader (who is typically the most experienced member). Such leaders help maintain group integrity and positive mental attitude through both delegating tasks and “monitoring the emotional states of crew members.”

One often forgotten factor contributing to the stress and anxiety levels of these isolated miners is family. The miners will likely experience growing anxiety for the well-being of their families while they are trapped for months. Knowing that their families are being provided for–the responsibility of the company (or government if publicly owned)–during this crisis period will go a long way towards ameliorating this anxiety. Addressing these needs and behaviors will help promote a more positive mind-state in the miners, which is and will be key to their collective survival, almost as much as air and food.

Mining–especially metals mining–is perhaps the most dangerous heavy industry on Earth, claiming scores, sometimes hundreds, of lives every year. It is also one of the most polluting and environmentally destructive industries on Earth, with much of its international activity and regulation left to “self-policing” *. As of 2007, total market capitalization of mining companies was nearly 1 trillion dollars. Despite this, worker safety precautions and environmental protections are often lax or lacking, especially with operations in developing nations.

To read the full op-ed, click here

* via financial market oversight concerned with ‘socially responsible investing’.

top photo:  NASA/ESA – ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter, STS-116 mission specialist, in the Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory for ISS (MELFI) inside the Destiny laboratory.
bottom photo: TJBlackwell on under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license
chart: KVDP

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