Written by psychotherapist Helen Cordery
It might be a week or so since they were rescued, but the story of the 12 young boys and their football coach rescued from a Thai cave is still grabbing headlines (BBC News, 2018). Today, for the first (but probably not last) time, they are facing the media, speaking to the world about their experience.
The whole story has felt like a disaster movie, with everyone on the edge of their seats as it unfolded. Except this wasn’t a Hollywood blockbuster – their fate really did hang in the balance. So, you could almost hear the entire world breathe a huge sigh of relief when all of them were rescued, malnourished and dehydrated, but otherwise physically unharmed. But what about their psychological situation? How can anyone recover from such a harrowing, life-death experience? And how can their friends, family, community and the world support them as they process their experience?
We humans are incredibly resilient when it comes to recovery after such trauma. Generally, two thirds of people can put it where it belongs – in the past (NHS, 2015). But there are certainly things that help this along. Recovery cannot even begin until the trauma has ended – so that’s one big tick for their recovery process. Naturally everyone in their community will want to see these young people but it’s crucial that they are not constantly overwhelmed by well-wishers, and that they are supported to return to the routine and structure of normal life once physically able.
Over this post-rescue period, they will undoubtedly experience flashbacks – extremely vivid memories of panic and terror. van der Kolk (2014) states “the first order of business is to find ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed by the sensations and emotions associated with the past”. It’s about knowing that although the flashbacks feel like you are back in the trauma, you are not, and that it’s possible to ride the wave of these intense emotions. There are many ways to do this, but the effective ones “all involve physical movement, breathing and meditation” (van der Kolk, 2014). In the West, we tend to use tools like breathing techniques, mindfulness and yoga. In Thailand, perhaps these young people will choose to use martial arts or something more culturally meaningful to them. No doubt football will play an important part in their recovery!
Whilst the frequency and power of flashbacks naturally diminish for most, not all will be so lucky. It is at this point that we begin to consider a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where more focused treatment such as EMDR, CBT or group therapy (NHS, 2015) can help. Again, perhaps there are more culturally meaningful treatment options that would work for these young people.
And what about their long-term outlook? As we are aware from the Chilean miner’s experience (Culbertson, 2016), there may be potential problems for them in the future. It may sound strange, but the way we (as world-wide spectators) can support them to recover from this experience is to let them slip to the back of our minds. We need to let these young people return to their community, be helped in a way that feels right for them, and to become the authors of their own destiny. In this way, they will have the best chance of processing their experience so that it becomes a part of who they are, but not what defines them.
BBC News,2018. Thai cave rescue boys relive ‘moment of miracle’. BBC News (online)18/07/18. Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-44868907(accessed 18/07/18).
Culbertson, A. (2016). Drinking, PTSD and fleeting fame: The fate of the 33 trapped Chilean miners five years on. Retrieved from https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/639195/33-trapped-Chilean-miners-film-Antonio-Banderason 11/07/18.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, NHS (2015). Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/treatment/on 11/07/18
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Holds the Score – Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Great Britain, Penguin Books
Already, just like the story of the Chilean miners (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_33_(film)), we know there will soon be an action movie portraying a Hollywood-ised version of these young people’s experience.