Lessons from Tham Luang

TOO much media attention may cause its own problems; most people try to cope with post-traumatic stress by avoiding situations that may remind them of the original traumatic episode, so facing intrusive questions, being reminded of being trapped in the Tham Luang cave, or reliving the dramatic escape could all initiate a spike in stress that could lead to mental collapse.

Even if the media exercise restraint, today the boys feel very important because of everything that has been done for them; when was the last time you had a personal physician, psycho-therapist and helicopter standing by? Has Fifa invited you to the World Cup final?

This may lead some of the boys to develop an unjustified sense of self-importance or even entitlement, some might begin to believe that their ordeal and rescue has in some way marked them out for higher things. Such attitudes are likely to alienate friends and family, so may disrupt the relationships the boys will need to sustain themselves in the future. This means that offering too much help may be more damaging than doing little, so apart from the support of medical and psychological professionals, the boys need to return to their normal lives as quickly as possible.

When they go home the boys will inevitably be the object of some interest, but eventually there will come a day when the story of Tham Luang cave will no longer be of interest to anyone except those who were there. Indeed, some people may begin to make it clear to the boys that nobody wants to hear about the incident and may even show some resentment when the subject comes up. This will be very hard for the boys, who will by this point probably be young men, to handle and they may turn in upon themselves and other members of the group because those who were not there cannot understand and no longer want to listen.

The fading of even their local celebrity may leave them feeling resentful and angry because they believe their "importance" is no longer recognised. Such feelings can lead to mental health issues, or to self-destructive behaviour that can cause health problems, and these feelings could emerge many years in the future.

This means that those boys who appear to be fine now may develop mental health issues when there is no support available to them. Therefore, it is to be hoped that each family will receive long-term mental health assistance and regular check-ups so that any problems that do emerge can be tackled quickly before they grow, but this intervention will need careful management so that it does not provoke the very problems it seeks to avoid. Again the main burden will fall upon the families and friends closest to the boys for it will be they who provide the anchors to reality and reassure the boys that their lives have meaning and purpose beyond the wet walls of Tham Luang.

So what are the psychological lessons of Tham Luang? We should help the boys and their coach to revert to normal life as soon as possible, to let the children be children, the man live his life, to leave them and their families alone, and to let the memories of the past few weeks naturally fade.

They should be welcomed back into their homes and their normal lives as quickly as possible, yet when they wake in the night or burst into tears, they should be shown the love that is due from each of us to someone in distress.

They should be returned to school, to work and to football training with the Wild Boars, spending their time as they did before, running, laughing and being boys. And when they are tetchy, angry or aggressive they should be subjected to the same sensitive but firm justice that should discipline any youngster or colleague.

This also means that we must do our best to leave the survivors and their families alone, we must respect their privacy, difficult though we may find it, and we must let time take its course. The extraordinary events have thrilled us all, but now we must leave the Wild Boars to live their lives, leaving with each of us the memory of transcendent human heroism in the face of great adversity – that is the real psychological lesson of Tham Luang.

Hew Gill is Associate Provost and Professor of Psychology at Sunway University. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com