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Life After the Disaster

THEORY TO PRACTICE, ISSUE NO. 3, FALL '11
Dr. Arnold Spokane
Dr. Arnold Spokane

“Los 33” had been entombed under 2,300 feet of dirt somewhere in the Atacama Desert, the world’s most inhospitable place, and for 18 long days, the chance of survival solemnly passed without any chance of rescue.

Their fortunes changed when a drill bit finally came crashing into their underground shelter on the 18th day. When the bit made its way back to the surface, rescue teams found a note attached that said, simply, “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33”—“We are well in the shelter, the 33.”

Held hostage by a man-made disaster for 69 days, the Chilean miners were in remarkable mental and physical condition when they were finally rescued. They were national heroes, thrust into the global spotlight with guarantees of fame and fortune. Brad Pitt wanted to buy their story. They visited Disney World and Graceland and traveled to the Acropolis.

And they were promised they’d never have to work in such deplorable conditions again.

For ten years, I have volunteered as a mental-health professional in places that have been devastated by disaster. I’ve spoken to families whose lives were shattered by Hurricane Katrina. I’ve helped communities across the heartland cope with loss brought about by torrential floods.

I’ve seen humanity at its best and worse—often at the same time.

"If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all of these ordeals, it’s that you can rebuild a community. Rebuilding a life is a lot more difficult."

Dr. Arnold Spokane

Humans are resilient and have an amazing amount of fight in them. But what happens when the glare of the national spotlight is gone? When emergency responders have returned home? When mothers and fathers are left to their own devices to find some semblance of continuity when everything else in life has changed for good?

You can look at Los 33 for answers. A year later, the Chileans are shackled by poverty, are stricken by depression, are forgotten by many of their country folk, and are in excruciatingly desperate search for professional opportunities.

For instance, Edison Peña is one of Los 33 who, according to media reports, has succumbed to binge drinking and anger in the year since he left the mine. His public outbursts have grown worse, especially as he and his fellow survivors have drawn up lawsuits against the Chilean government and the mine owners.

“If both God and the Devil were down that mine, I think that probably the Devil took him,” his partner told England’s Telegraph newspaper.

The same article describes how fellow miner Álex Vega has had a difficult time readjusting to life above ground and is building a high wall around his house, for no apparent reason. Víctor Zamora recently visited the site of the collapse and told his family that “... he felt nothing but sadness. The other me is still in there.”

Those who are fortunate enough to return to the mines—if, indeed, you can call that fortunate—endure lingering nightmares, anxiety and depression. Their frame of mind makes it difficult—if not impossible—to perform their duties. They are simply ill-equipped to thrive because they never received the assistance they needed to become contributing members of society once again.

This is a system-wide deficiency that knows no boundaries and must be fixed. What is happening to trauma survivors in Chile is also happening to their counterparts in Haiti and Japan and along our Gulf Coast. Closer to home, the issue has long been a source of concern among those counseling the courageous survivors of 9/11.

I experienced it the days around Christmas 2005 in Gulfport, Mississippi, just months after Hurricane Katrina ripped apart the fabric of that community. A couple and two children had not only lost their home, but the husband’s business, which he had built from scratch over the past 20 years. 

His wife worked at a local factory that was heavily damaged and not expected to open until later that summer. The family received a FEMA allotment of $2,300 in cash, and then another allotment of $2,000. Nonetheless, they had to replace all clothes and essentials, and had no visible income after the storm.

The husband indicated that he simply did not have the energy to start his business over again—he was in his 50s—in spite of a U.S. Small Business Administration loan offer. And the wife, distraught and worried about her children, indicated that she simply couldn’t go back to work right then… maybe never.

I don’t know how their story ends. The simple truth is that a four-fold increase in natural and human-caused disasters, along with the global economic downturn of the last three years, social upheavals in the developing world and post-conflict recovery in war-torn nations all pose mounting behavioral and health challenges for counseling psychologists like myself.

Vocational concerns are often a bellwether of long-term health and mental-health problems; unemployment that lasts longer than six months, for example, frequently results in significant depression, according to studies. Truth be told, solutions to this problem, like offering vocational choices and helping patients adjust to barriers at work, are only peripherally mentioned in most urban disaster plans.

Post-traumatic recovery, depression, and anxiety disorders have been the principal focus of attention for behavioral health specialists working and studying under these extreme conditions. But we too often fall short of properly planning for one behavioral health issue in particular: vocational issues.

It’s an omission that breeds disastrous consequences.

—By Arnold Spokane, professor of counseling psychology