Thai boys: Trauma could plague them for a long time, says psychologist

The rescue mission involving 12 boys and their football coach came to an end on Tuesday when they were freed from the waterlogged Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand.

A Thai public health official confirmed that the boys are healthy and in "high spirits".

Physical and psychological effects

Dr Jesada Chokdumrongsuk, deputy director-general of the public health ministry, said that two of the boys may have lung infections but they're all generally "healthy and smiling".

Two of the boys are being treated for pneumonia and six others for hypothermia.

"These boys are being treated with antibiotics. All of the boys were suffering from hypothermia when they arrived at the hospital," Dr Chokdumrongsuk revealed.  

But the physical effects of their ordeal isn't the only thing to be considered – the mental and psychological effects of being trapped in a waterlogged cave for over two weeks can't be underestimated.

When reality kicks in

Dr Nthabiseng Ramothwala, a counselling psychologist, explains how this kind of scenario may have long-term effects.

"The first feeling should be a sense of relief because of the simple fact that they're alive and survived that traumatic ordeal," says Dr Ramothwala. But when reality kicks in, and they reflect on the time spent trapped in the cave, feelings of trauma may result.

"The trauma that they will face is psychological, as they will spend days rehashing what could have happened if they hadn't been rescued. 

"The possibility of losing their life, drowning underwater, of being attacked by animals in the cave, or the possibility of not being found may remind them of what could've happened if divers hadn't come to their rescue," says Dr Ramothwala. 

It is likely that the boys could end up suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the situation they were faced with.

The power of water

They may develop a sense of fear of similar enclosures, dark rooms, swimming, or a simple fear of the ocean. 

They may suffer from PTSD, and similar settings or events may remind them of the two weeks they spent trapped in a cave.

"They may develop a fear of water; being underwater could make them realise the power that water has," says Dr Ramothwala.  

While it's likely that the boys may suffer from post-traumatic stress, each individual will have different symptoms, she explains.

"Trauma might kick in at different times for each individual, and each boy will have his own experience dealing with the trauma."

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a type of anxiety that emerges after a life-threatening event. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), PTSD is a "debilitating condition which follows a traumatic event". PTSD is often misunderstood and undiagnosed and can occur in both children and adults. SADAG confirms that traumatic ordeals like domestic violence, loss of a parent or natural disasters can have this kind of impact on children.

Symptoms

SADAG reports that PTSD symptoms may appear within weeks after the traumatic experience. PTSD is diagnosed after the person’s symptoms have persisted for more than three months after a traumatic ordeal. Other symptoms that may accompany PTSD are depression, anxiety and social withdrawal.

Treatment

It’s important that persons suffering from PTSD receive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).  

According to the South African journal of Psychiatry, it's estimated that the prevalence of PTSD among the South African population is 2.3%

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