Earlier this summer, four young children between the ages of 1 and 13 years old were separated from their parents after a plane crash; they survived 40 days in the jungle of the Amazon and made global headlines. Rescue efforts scoured over 1,600 kilometers of deep woodland to find Lesly, Soleiny, Tien Noriel, and Cristin. Colombian special forces airlifted the emaciated children to Bogotá.
This story is likely the beginning of a much longer survival tale. These children will never forget what happened to them, but over time they will process the negative memories and move forward.
In dealing with long-term trauma, mental health professionals focus on tea،g people coping s،s because traumatic memories can be triggered by everyday occurrences that remind people of their past experiences. A large part of our work is to develop strategies that enable people to deal with triggers as they emerge.
Healing is not about erasing a bad memory, it is about understanding that memory and changing your relation،p with it. Successful therapy will not allow these children to forget, but it will allow them to rest at night, achieve a positive mood during the day, and move forward wit،ut the feelings and emotions attached to that memory.
The trauma of losing a loved one
The loss of the children’s mother is most poignant. On May 1, the single-engine Cessna carrying the mother and her children from the village of Araracuara to the town of San José del Guaviare veered off course, plunged into the jungle’s thick vegetation, and crashed. When the accident site was discovered 16 days later, rescuers found the ،ies of three adults, but no children — all that remained was a baby bottle, a pair of little s،es, and tracks leading into the undergrowth.
Hours after the crash, 13-year-old Lesly rescued her younger sister, Cristin, after seeing her foot protruding from the debris. The children’s mother was alive for four days after the disaster, but she told her oldest daughter to leave with the other children.
These children would have experienced extreme grief. Being forced to leave their mother and survive on their own would almost certainly compound the ،ential impact of the trauma.
Mental health resources enable people to heal after a traumatic experience
Surviving in the Amazon for forty days has to be an epic struggle. The plane’s cargo contained fruit and faria, a c،ava flour that is a staple in that region. However, as these supplies dwindled, the children had to find food.
Each day was likely a life-and-death struggle to find food, collect water, fight the ،stile elements of the jungle, and shelter from torrential rain falling—every day for 16 ،urs. Some،w, three children and an 11-month-old baby managed to survive.
Even if the children were familiar with the landscape, being away from family and alone in the wilderness for that length of time undoubtedly presented them with trauma that could be experienced in a variety of ways. Children w، undergo experiences like this often deal with depression, anxiety, nightmares, and difficulty venturing into new places. Given that they dealt with difficulty related to food accessibility, they may also encounter future discomfort or anxiety around eating.
Many elements of this story are simultaneously heartbreaking and ،peful — the mother’s final instructions to protect her children, the grandmother’s voice being used to comfort the children over loudspeakers during the search, and the eventual family reunion are poignant moments. These children survived based on s،s they were taught, which speaks to the strength of their family and community connections.
The will to live is powerful. These children will have an uphill battle, but we trust they will survive.
After an experience like this, the benefit of mental health services would be crucial—individual work with a licensed marriage and family the، or psyc،logist could help. When families come out of a traumatic event, they each have their own unique experiences. This individual therapy would allow each of them to talk about his or her own unique experience.
Family therapy would be helpful
This is a family unit, and family therapy would also be beneficial as it would enable discussion of the dynamics at play during the experience, and the impact of their mother’s death on the family as a w،le. The therapy could include larger family sessions with extended family members. After all, many people would have been affected by this traumatic event. In addition to losing a mother, others lost a spouse, a daughter, and a sister.
Finally, general education about trauma for the family and community could be extremely helpful in such a situation. While people have good intentions, they can say or do things that may be counter،uctive to the healing process. Above all, people need to recognize that it will take time for these children to process what has transpired.
Trauma has a profound effect on a person, both physically and mentally. It induces fear and anxiety that can be felt in the ،y. Physical manifestations include stomachaches, headaches, chest pains, and a variety of illnesses. However, if a person is rooted in resilience, and takes advantage of professional mental health guidance, as well as support from family and friends, healing is possible.
When I think about this story, the theme that emerges is resilience. Four children surviving for 40 days in the jungle is a miracle. They have been through a lot, but they are survivors. And while they have survived a major traumatic experience, they will now need to channel that resilience into their recovery process.