How will the Thai cave incident affect the rescued boys’ mental health?

Q&A with trauma expert and social work professor Ellen R. DeVoe on lessons learned from the rescue mission originally deemed impossible

By Lexi Herosian (COM’19)

On June 23rd in Chiang Rai, Thailand, a group of 11 to 16 year-old boys and their soccer coach entered the Tham Luang cave complex. Little did they know, it would be weeks before they would be able to emerge. The group of 13 became trapped in the cave due to flooding from a heavy rainstorm. Ekapol Chantawong, the team’s coach, and a previous Buddhist monk, helped calm the boys’ anxiety by teaching them meditation, but the complete lack of light and scarcity of food and water made for an extremely dangerous environment.

After 10 days, the group was found and eventually rescued by a large team of specialist divers and Thai Navy Seals. The 18-day exit process involved 13 separate four-hour trips of swimming through the flooded cave crevices.

The mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting experience naturally raises concerns regarding the boys’ well-being and mental health. Ellen R. DeVoe, Professor & Director of the Doctoral Program in Social Work & Sociology at Boston University’s School of Social Work, talks about the side effects of traumatic experiences and the broader lessons learned from the heroic rescue.

DeVoe: This ordeal is likely to have a lasting impact on the boys, the coach, and their families and loved ones. How the boys and their coach recover and move forward will be influenced by a multitude of factors, including their physical health, the ability of their families and communities to respond to them in caring and sustaining ways and individual factors. It will also be important that the boys and their coach be protected from media and having to share their stories when they may not want to or may not be ready.

A: I think this trauma is different from the crises and violence affecting children all over the world, and in our own country, right now. In this rescue, we see hundreds of adults from multiple sectors of government, including the military, health, etc., and local communities supporting these 12 boys and young adult coach. By contrast, as one example, our government is actually causing significant and in my view, intentional, trauma for migrant families and children who have been separated and detained at US borders. We know how to support and care for children in the midst of crisis and the current administration is intentionally doing the opposite.

A: Families and loved ones can help the boys return to the typical rhythms and routines of family and community life. Getting back into ‘normal’ rituals will help the group move forward. It will also be important for families and loved ones to learn about the recovery process — what to look for in their children’s functioning that might signal distress and the need for formal care — and how to respond in nurturing and calming ways. As an example, we might expect this group to experience triggers related to being in the cave — such as being afraid of the dark, of water, of enclosed spaces, etc. Some of the teamh may develop longer term distress, including depression or anxiety-related challenges, and/or post-traumatic stress adaptation. I would be especially concerned about the coach, who may blame himself for what happened and who may experience guilt and shame, even though he clearly was critical to the team’s survival.

A: Yes. I think the trauma community has much to learn about how this coach was able to support the boys throughout the ordeal. There is a great deal of interest in the field regarding how meditation and mindfulness can be used to reduce psychological distress — and it appears that this strategy may have been quite helpful while the team was trapped in a dark cave for several weeks. We don’t know exactly what the circumstances were when the team was trapped , but I would imagine that many aspects of the experience were terrifying.

I think the manner in which the rescue operation was carried out is truly remarkable. The mobilization of the expertise needed for the tactical/logistical pieces AND to take such care to train, prepare, and support each child through the rescue process (what to expect, how to use the equipment, flanking each child by a rescuer on both sides, etc.) was impressive.

A: I would be very interested to learn more about how Thai culture and spiritual practices and beliefs have already influenced and will continue to shape the experiences and recovery of the team, their coach and families.

Ellen DeVoe is available to comment on the mental health effects of the Thailand rescue mission. She can be reached at edevoe@bu.edu.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts and on Instagram at @buexperts.

Written by

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store