Polar expeditions linked to ‘madness’


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  • #781

    Sun Dog
    Member

    Not the first study or the last, I am sure! SD

    Polar expeditions linked to ‘madness’
    Mental troubles grip workers, research finds
    By Will Dunham, Reuters | July 26, 2007

    WASHINGTON — Working for long periods in the harsh and unforgiving conditions near the North Pole and South Pole often causes people to suffer a stew of psychological symptoms dubbed “polar madness,” scientists said yesterday.

    The researchers studied the psychological effects on people from toiling in remote polar outposts, often for a year at a time, gleaning lessons they say might help prepare for lengthy human space missions, such as a trip to Mars.

    While some people on polar expeditions savor a gratifying sense of achievement, the researchers said, 40 percent to 60 percent of them may suffer negative effects such as depression, sleep disruption, anger, irritability, and conflict with co-workers.

    About 5 percent of these people endure psychological disturbances severe enough to merit treatment with medication or therapy, the researchers said.

    “Polar madness can take a variety of shapes,” Lawrence Palinkas, a University of Southern California anthropologist who wrote the paper in the Lancet medical journal along with Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia in Canada, said in a telephone interview.

    “Some people may have difficulty adjusting to the light-dark cycles, and so they can never get a decent night sleep and experience a sleep disorder,” he said. “Some people can get clinically depressed. Some people just can’t handle the confinement, with seeing the same people day in and day out for extended periods of time.”

    The researchers interviewed people on polar expeditions, reviewed diaries of early polar explorers, and examined data from countries maintaining permanent polar-research stations.

    Apart from anecdotal reports of “polar madness” and cabin fever, they said, little was documented about the psychological demands that people on polar expeditions face as they work in frigid and dangerous conditions surrounded by the same small group of people and isolated from family and friends.

    Depending on the time of year, these places can remain in darkness or light for months.

    “Say there’s somebody you go to lunch with and you don’t notice the way that they eat. But if you ate with that same person day in and day out for six months, suddenly the way they chew their food is enough to drive you crazy,” said Palinkas, who has ventured to the Antarctic seven times.

    The Lancet paper detailed past cases of polar expeditions gone wrong, including an Arctic scientific expedition in the 1880s that descended into mutiny, lunacy, suicide, and cannibalism, leaving only six survivors from a crew of 25 men.

    Palinkas cited more recent examples of “polar madness” at research stations, including one staffer clubbing another with a claw hammer and another beating a co-worker with a pipe.

    “There was a saying at the station for the remainder of the winter that, ‘If you’ve got a gripe, use a pipe,’ ” he said.

    The researchers mentioned several other symptoms among people on polar expeditions such as memory impairment, anxiety, reduced alertness, headaches, boredom, fatigue, inattention to personal hygiene, intellectual inertia, and overeating.

    In Antarctica, 20 nations, including the United States, operate 47 permanent stations for the entire year, with hundreds of people staying for months.

    #7888

    Sciencetech
    Keymaster

    Yeah, I read that… I have so many criticisms regarding that story it’s hard to know where to start. Here’s just a few:

    > Working for long periods in the harsh and unforgiving conditions
    > near the North Pole and South Pole often causes people to suffer
    > a stew of psychological symptoms dubbed “polar madness,”

    Something isn’t real unless you create a name for it. “Polar madness” makes it a fact, doesn’t it?

    > the researchers said, 40 percent to 60 percent of them may suffer
    > negative effects such as depression, sleep disruption, anger,
    > irritability, and conflict with co-workers.

    Let’s see… working 6-7 days a week, crammed in to tight quarters, no vacations. Would people get irritable? You bet. Polar madness? Oh puhleese.

    > About 5 percent of these people endure psychological disturbances
    > severe enough to merit treatment with medication or therapy, the
    > researchers said.

    *Ahem*. Please compare and contrast this with the number of people NOT working in polar environments who also require medication and therapy. Are the statistics much different? This article does not say.

    > The Lancet paper detailed past cases of polar expeditions gone wrong,
    > including an Arctic scientific expedition in the 1880s that descended into
    > mutiny, lunacy, suicide, and cannibalism, leaving only six survivors from
    > a crew of 25 men.

    Let’s take a closer look at this. During the so-called Heroic Age of exploration, expedition managers had a financial interest in ‘playing-up’ the difficulties: they needed funding to pay for the expeditions. So while many of the old anecdotes may be true, there is definitely a bias. These days people are not starving, and there is no cannibalism. Is this evidence for contemporary ‘polar madness’?

    > Palinkas cited more recent examples of “polar madness” at research
    > stations, including one staffer clubbing another with a claw hammer

    Again, let’s look at the facts. The hammer attacker was very drunk, and also provoked. This is one anecdote, not evidence for a syndrome.

    > The researchers mentioned several other symptoms among people on
    > polar expeditions such as memory impairment, anxiety, reduced
    > alertness, headaches, boredom, fatigue, inattention to personal hygiene,
    > intellectual inertia, and overeating.

    Never mind the effects of long working hours. Pay no attention to the work schedule, blame it all on the polar environment.

    Okay, that’s enough. If you can’t tell, this kind of ‘study’ drives me to a kind of polar madness.
    :mrgreen:

    glenn

    #7868

    Anonymous
    Member

    Glenn: That was an excellent rebuttal. First, I tend to be suspicious of “studies” that don’t name the “scientists” who did them. Second, the conclusions from this so-called study are ludicrous. You have spent more time on the ice than I, but in my one-year winter-over I found the experience to be very relaxing. We worked hard and slept well. And, above all, we didn’t have the kind of stress that employees are normally subject to in the corporate environment here in the states.

    #7869

    Been There
    Member

    Since I have had more than a bit to do with the recent incidents discussed I completely support Glen’s comments. But I also know Larry P and I think he has been taken out of context. Those of us “lucky” enough to
    deal with the media know you never can control what comes out in the press.

    Some years ago a reporter from one of the major New York papers visited the program. He clearly had a story already written before he arrived about what it was like to winter. When you spoke with individuals they told him “cold, dark and boring” which did not fit his story of “sex, booze and drugs”. I think he finally found several people that gave him what he wanted, in the bar!

    Bottom line, tose of us that have been around the program for some time find most media coverage totally off base.

    Been There

    #7871

    m0loch
    Keymaster

    Glenn,
    I concur, that was a good rebuttal but…just having been offered (and accepted) my very first W/O contract, at Pole no less, what about T3…does it really exist and are the rumored effects for real?

    #7872

    Sciencetech
    Keymaster

    Hmm. I’ll avoid commenting on T3. What you’re really asking, I think, is what kind of changes to expect when wintering, right?

    I’m with mirage, winters are relaxing (if everything is going well).

    There do appear to be some physiological changes that occur in response to the darkness. It seems to me that most people get an urge to become couch potatoes. It’s like nature is telling your body to conserve energy. People go to bed earlier, reduce their social schedules, and generally move a lot slower. Actually, it’s kinda nice.

    One drawback, however, is that it takes a lot more effort to get up and be active. That, and the lack of time cues sometimes bothered me (but that’s mostly because I’m anal about my job).

    If you’re concerned about it, just plan on doing a few miles on the treadmill every morning. Follow it up with a couple cups of good coffee and you’ll be on top of it.

    Oh, and pack a good alarm clock.

    #7873

    Sun Dog
    Member

    I agree with Glenn. There is plenty of time to do things during the winter…. you never have a decent amount of time to accomplish in your off-winter-over life. I found having a daly shedule of work events that you had to perform really helped during the SP winter. Getting outside for a walk everyday is essential. Getting some light from the hydroponics lab/garden was nice. The lack of sun during the winter did not bother me at all.

    I’m with mirage, winters are relaxing (if everything is going well).

    There do appear to be some physiological changes that occur in response to the darkness. It seems to me that most people get an urge to become couch potatoes. It’s like nature is telling your body to conserve energy. People go to bed earlier, reduce their social schedules, and generally move a lot slower. Actually, it’s kinda nice.

    One drawback, however, is that it takes a lot more effort to get up and be active. That, and the lack of time cues sometimes bothered me (but that’s mostly because I’m anal about my job).

    I did not like the article due to the sensational labeling of metal condtions that are pretty much very common in the fast paced and somewhat impersonal society that is in the modern world. Sometimes I think people put on the label to make something out of nothing…to get more attention and money for more studies. They (Suedfeld and Palinkas) certainly can not compare anything today to the Heroic Age of exploration.

    This statement makes no sense to me…

    “Say there’s somebody you go to lunch with and you don’t notice the way that they eat. But if you ate with that same person day in and day out for six months, suddenly the way they chew their food is enough to drive you crazy,” said Palinkas, who has ventured to the Antarctic seven times.

    Last time I checked there are plenty of places on station you could eat lunch..duh.

    I wonder how many weeks each summer season Palinkas visited ?

    Wonder how much the study cost in the long run. (Who pays for them, taxpayers?) Who needs these studies and what for?

    #7870

    Sciencetech
    Keymaster

    @Sun Dog wrote:

    Getting some light from the hydroponics lab/garden was nice.

    I agree. Like you, the darkness didn’t bother me, but it sure was nice to visit the greenhouse (at McMurdo in my case).

    As you and BT point out, the media wants to sensationalize everything. The main points of Palinkas’ study may have been lost in the article’s fluff. I’d like to read the whole thing but you have to be a subscriber to the Lancet journal. However, here’s a summary:

    Polar expeditions include treks and stays at summer camps or
    year-round research stations. People on such expeditions generally
    undergo psychological changes resulting from exposure to long periods of
    isolation and confinement, and the extreme physical environment.
    Symptoms include disturbed sleep, impaired cognitive ability, negative
    affect, and interpersonal tension and conflict. Seasonal occurrence of
    these symptoms suggests the existence of three overlapping syndromes:
    the winter-over syndrome, the polar T3 syndrome, and subsyndromal
    seasonal affective disorder. About 5% of people on expeditions meet
    DSM-IV or ICD criteria for psychiatric disorders. However, they also
    experience positive or so-called salutogenic outcomes resulting from
    successfully coping with stress and enhanced self-sufficiency, improved
    health, and personal growth. Prevention of pathogenic psychological
    outcomes is best accomplished by psychological and psychiatric screening
    procedures to select out unsuitable candidates, and by providing access to
    psychological support, including telephone counselling. Promotion of
    salutogenic experiences is best accomplished by screening for suitable
    personality traits, and training participants in individual coping strategies,
    group interaction, and team leadership.

    Obviously it’s impossible to fully assess the study based on that summary. Not mentioned are the sample sizes, error rates, and other potentially confounding information.

    I think what bothers me most about this sort of thing — aside from the media distortions — is that, IMHO, the medical/psychiatric community often approaches Antarctic service with a preconceived notion of what results they expect to see. This is not intended as a criticism of the Palinkas paper per se, especially since I haven’t read it, but just the general approach I’ve seen to such studies. The attribution of many of the psychological effects to the polar environment, isolation, and hormonal changes seems to disregard other factors.

    The study I’d really like to see is where they interview and screen people just after they’ve come off the Ice after a long stint. Working in Antarctica for a year and then popping right back into “civilization” is a real shock.

    #7874

    Anonymous
    Member

    Glenn wrote:
    the medical/psychiatric community often approaches Antarctic service
    with a preconceived notion of what results they expect to see.

    You know it! This is the sort of thing that Richard Feynman referred to as Cargo Cult Science.

    #7875

    Been There
    Member

    Folks,

    I would just like to say that you are all providing outstanding imputs and I hope that all new winter folks are able to read and share your coments. Think RPSC or NSF/OPP would be interested in diresting new winter candidates to this site? Doubtful.

    Been There

    #7876

    Baghdad Jim
    Member

    Hey there….what are the incidents that you guys remember in the ice? People wigging out, someone turns into a mole-man, catfights, clawhammers, someone starting their own ‘botany’ department in a closet, billeting/HR on the warpath. Stuff like that.

    I remember hearing about the hammer one. On another board or blog, there was an almost passable comment about this past summer having a lot of ‘bad boy’ types and a lot of people kicked off the ice. I would assume thats at McMurdo but no one commented or elaborated.

    These are the things I find interesting…I don’t want to ask this on Mikes board since its a lot more, erm…I guess you would say sanitized with a ton of newbies and they might not be keen to discuss that sort of thing over there.

    #7877

    Sciencetech
    Keymaster

    Hiya Jim, long time no see. Welcome back.

    Mole-man? Hadn’t heard about that one. Sounds like fun. 😉

    The media — especially Stuff.co.nz — kind of blew things out of proportion this past year. There were not lots of problems, just a few that caught the attention of the press. The altercation at the Pole was probably the biggest ado, and it was only two drunks that ‘had it out’. A few words, a little shoving, and a single hit that caused both to be evicted, one with a broken jaw. Wheee. Too bad it had to happen over the Christmas holiday and ruin the day off for a lot of people.

    I wouldn’t say HR is on the warpath. More like lost in space. The advertising for this year’s job fair is a case in point.

    I just got out of the Pole a few weeks ago… Ready to take a break from the Ice for a while, assuming I can find something else to do with myself for the next year or two.

    g

    #7878

    thepooles98
    Keymaster

    Hey all
    Found this site again. I hate it when you leave the ice and forget to copy all your favorites.

    As to pysch problems. To be honest, I never ever really saw anything in 5 winters that would lead me to think that there is a T3 experience. Maybe the opposite.

    One of my cop friends once asked me how can McMurdo survive with no police force. I told him we really didn’t need one. Take an average sized small town of several hundred to a thousand and you’ll see so much deviant behavior that just doesn’t exist at MCM. Even in the winter, apart from the oft publicized events of many years ago, things are pretty benign. In part because background checks now cut out anyone who has a police record of drinking and/or violence.
    Take out people who already had problems back home and poof no more problems in the depth of the winter. It seems funny to me. Maybe it’s genetic.

    Over the years I’ve watched enough people to know that for most people the experience is great until the last month. It doesn’t matter what season you are in. As long as you are settled and have routines you are happy.
    What happens in the last month?

    Your life changes. You suddenly have to pack, move, worry about home, worry about relationships etc. Your whole world goes topsy turvey and for most it gets very hard to do the 6 week work week thing. You time to leave is coming up. You cant possibly do everything that needs to be done and at some point you just have to say to yourself, this is it, I can’t wait to leave.

    #7879

    Baghdad Jim
    Member

    does anyone ever not want to leave?…Like, seriously wanting to stay ?

    #7880

    thepooles98
    Keymaster

    I don’t think there is ever a question. You can’t stay no matter what. You may get an extra month or so, but you can’t work a second year.
    M

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