Thai cave rescue: Child psychologist warns media hype is harmful to kids

Twelve boys and their soccer coach were rescued after more than two weeks of hunkering down and waiting for help in a flooded cave in Thailand – an opportunity US film producers seem intent on seizing to turn the dramatic events into a movie.

German child psychologist Renate Schepker warns that a feature film about their ordeal could pose an incalculable risk to their mental health.

DW: A radical situation like the one the boys just survived can have repercussions much later in life. What are some of the possible psychological effects?

Schepker: They could suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, which means they would relive the situation in nightmares or flashbacks. Triggers in everyday life could bring the memories rushing back, and the person actually physically relives the situation. There is fear, anxiety, and in the worst case, fear of dying – which the kids must have had in the cave at some point. People can also be in a bad mood. Disorders can crop up months after the situation ended.

How would you treat the boys? Is there some kind of “first aid” for the soul?

Yes, in fact there is: first of all, the kids must recognize that they are safe, cared for and that the traumatic situation is over. A warm bed, food and sleep are a start, and all of that has been provided for these children.

It’s likely that the media will want to hear about their plight, talk to them, drag them into the public. Is that good for them, or rather bad?

It’s good only to a certain extent. They should not be forced to speak about what happened if they are not ready. It is also important that they speak about their harrowing experience in a familiar situation and not in public, in the limelight of the cameras.

So the adage that it is a good thing to get something off one’s chest isn’t necessarily always true?

No, it isn’t, and certainly not across the board and in every situation.

Bikes outside the cave the soccer team wanted to explore for an hour – but was trapped in for weeks

It seems more than one film production firm is keen on making a Thai cave rescue movie, and reportedly there have already been interviews with people involved in the rescue. What do you think about a possible Hollywood film?

Actors could play the scenes, but not people who were involved, and certainly not at this point in time. Anything along those lines is exploitative and voyeuristic. It is, from a psychiatric point of view, totally inappropriate. It oversteps ethical boundaries.

How could this be stopped?

Perhaps we need a press code for such major events. I think this would also be handled much more carefully in Germany.

Should there ever be a film, the rescued children and their parents would inevitably be in the focus of the media and not come to rest. They might benefit financially, which would probably be welcome as the families are not rich. Is there anything other people can do to help them?

The state could for instance offer compensation for their suffering. I think speaking to anyone apart from family, friends and people who have professional psychological training is problematic. No interviewer, no journalist and no filmmaker has mastered the technique of being there for a child after such an interview.

The story of Chilean miners trapped in a mine for 69 days before they were finally rescued was filmed in 2015. Some of the miners who were rescued at the time have spoken out to warn the rescued Thai children and their parents of the consequences of this enormous publicity, only to be forgotten again. What would you recommend?

As a mother, I would protect my child. The feeling of security is not stable if the child is constantly reminded of his or her victim status by the media. It can have very negative consequences. Parents are ill-advised to make their child a victim again, so to speak, for the sake of quick money.

Prof. Dr. Renate Schepker (born 1954) is Joint Technical Director of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Weissenau, Ravensburg and Calw. She is also the author of books on various forms of therapy for children and young people.

Interview: Klaus Krämer

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