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Trapped Chilean Miners Face Psychological, Physical Challenges

Chilean officials say it could take months to rescue 33 miners who have already spent three weeks trapped more than 600-meters underground in the north of the country. Reaching the miners and keeping them alive and healthy are top concerns. But tending to the miners' psychological needs and emotional well-being is also critical.

In a demonstration of stoicism and defiance in the face of extreme hardship and peril, the trapped miners fervently sang Chile's national anthem after communications were established between their shelter and rescuers above.

Optimism counts

University College London senior lecturer in psychology James Thompson says maintaining a positive mental outlook is critical in times of extreme hardship and mortal peril.

"The psychological [aspect] is important, because it maintains all the things which improve one's probability of survival, even when those probabilities are very low," said Thompson.

Confined to a small chamber, the miners are enduring extremely close quarters with one another. Chilean officials have reached out to a host of experts on cramped living conditions, from submarine officers to NASA experts, for advice.

Team spirit

Thompson says confinement in a crowded small space will tax the miners' psyches, but does provide one benefit, as well.

"The fact that they are in a group of knowledgeable persons is a great help. Individuals can fail, and others can comfort them. This is a cooperative group, and that helps mitigate some of the enormous damage of this dreadful event," Thompson said.

Chilean officials did not initially tell the miners exactly how long it could take to drill an escape tunnel.

Thompson says the miners are undoubtedly aware that rescue will not be quick. He says officials are right not to promise any overly-optimistic timeframes for rescue that would inevitably lead to disappointment. Instead, they should stress all that is being done to secure the miners' rescue.

Staying occupied

Thompson adds the miners themselves should be made to feel that they play a role in their own fate, and should be given tasks to keep busy and remain engaged.

"You have got to get them involved. You have to make them the rescue team downstairs, and then the discussions they will have and the feelings they will have will be much more positive," Thompson explained.

Maintaining miners' spirits may be a prime goal of the rescue operation, but Chilean President Sebastian Pinera told the trapped men that their fight for survival has provided an emotional lift to the entire nation.

The president told the miners they are enduring hell, but that their struggle has resurrected the nation's spirit and provided an example of courage for all to follow.

And that spirit and courage, above ground and below, faces a monumental challenge in the weeks and months to come.