As the world watched the drama unfold beneath the earth in Thailand, where 12 youth soccer players and their young coach were trapped for more than two weeks after a spelunking trip, J. Craig Allen, MD, thought about their mental health.
“Being separated unexpectedly from family and friends can be emotionally and psychologically traumatic,” says the Rushford Center medical director, a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist. “The most potential harm can come from the unexpected nature of an incident.”
While he stresses that most people, including children, in such life-threatening situations do not suffer long-term issues as a result, there are other positives about the Thailand situation that should also help the young athletes bounce back from their traumatic experience.
“Factors leading to resilience can include social support, experiencing the event with others as opposed to being alone, and minimizing the unknown, which the rescuers have done since establishing communication with the children and their coach,” says Dr. Allen. “It is the fear of the unknown, a lack of information or confusing information and unpredictability that can lead to longer term problems.”
Being part of a team is also key to their recovery.
“A sports team, by design, is accustomed to working together,” he says, “each having individual responsibilities while sharing a common goal. Apparently, this team, the ‘Wild Boars,’ had regularly embarked on purposefully sought-out challenges with their coach in the past.”
This type of social support, according to research, will likely help minimize any post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) lingering after the rescue, although Dr. Allen says it will be important for the boys to avoid the limelight and return to as normal a life as possible as soon as they are physically ready.
“They will be at increased risk of mood, anxiety and/or PTSD as time goes by so will require monitoring,” he says. “However, they may be less vulnerable than an individual or a less cohesive group of people would be when exposed to similar stressors.”
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