Psychology/Psychiatry

Therapists to Miners: We'll Come to Your Emotional Rescue

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Brendan O'Neill describes the recently rescued Chilean miners' struggles with the therapists charged with managing their mental health:

Why won't those blockheads talk with me?

One of the medical experts at San Jose—part of a team of 300 people that oversaw the men's health and needs—said there was a 'daily arm wrestle' between the miners and the psychology team. That isn't surprising. The mental-health experts overground used a system of 'prizes and punishments' to try to control the men's behaviour—for their own good, of course. So when the men assented to hour-long phone calls with the mental-health team, as they did when they were first found to be alive 17 days after getting trapped, they were rewarded with prizes such as access to TV shows. But when they refused to talk to the psychologists, as they started to do in mid-September when their health and body weight were improving as a result of sent-down food and they insisted that 'we are well', the psychology team would deprive them of luxuries. As one on-site doctor put it: 'We have to say, "OK, you don't want to speak with psychologists? Perfect. That day you get no TV, there is no music—because we administer these things."'

The psychology team became judge and jury of what the men could do for enjoyment and even how they could communicate with their families. When the men asked for cigarettes and alcohol, saying that these small pleasures would help them cope better than their daily phone call with the experts, the psychology team begrudgingly agreed to send down cigarettes but not booze—because 'the average miner consumes large quantities of alcohol', one of the psychologists said, and there is no telling how they will behave when inebriated in hot, cramped conditions. The men were furious. But only because they don't understand the dangers of drinking, one of the on-site doctors snootily declared. 'These are not PhD scientists, they are rough-and-tumble miners', he said, giving a glimpse into the experts' deep disdain for the men they were supposed to be helping.

But the thing that really tore the miners and their mental-health betters apart—the thing that ensured 'the honeymoon was over', as the lead on-site psychologist put it—was the psychology team's 'widespread censorship' of family letters to the men. Early on, every time a family member wrote a letter it had to be submitted for psychological evaluation first, before being sent down the so-called umbilical cord to the men underground, so that any material judged 'psychologically inappropriate' could be removed. There was uproar when the families discovered that there was a backlog of letters waiting to be okayed. One of the miners had asked his wife during a video link-up: 'Why don't you write to me anymore?' In fact she had been writing everyday, but her letters were awaiting 'psychological approval'. Eventually government officials stepped in and ended the vetting of the letters.

Society as a whole is more and more splitting into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Shrinks and Proletariat.

The men rebelled against these measures in any way they could. At one stage they delayed taking vaccines that had been sent down until they got something they wanted. And as they regained weight courtesy of the food sent down the umbilical cord, 'their antagonism to the daily psychology sessions increased', as one report put it. That is, the healthier they got, the closer they became through their own methods of bonding, the more they looked upon the psycho-sessions as an unnecessary irritation.