Man Lost At Sea for 16 Months: The Mental Effects of Being Alone

Man Lost At Sea for 16 Months: The Mental Effects of Being Alone

Written by Trevor Eaton, Posted on , in Section Teens & Tweens

Jose Ivan was discovered in a beat up fiberglass boat that had washed up on a reef at Ebon Atoll in the Marshall Island out in the Pacific Ocean.  He claims that he had been adrift for 16 months after his boat failed on a trip from Mexico to El Salvador. He survived by feeding on fish, birds, and turtles, and by drinking rain water and turtle blood when rain wasn’t available.  There wasn't any fishing equipment on the boat, and the man claims to have caught all the animals with his bare hands.  The trip wasn’t spent in complete solitary confinement, he did have a passenger with him, but sadly that person passed away several months ago.  

Ivan is now being treated by the locals and is waiting to be flown, after the plane is repaired, to a better location for treatment.  Although he is severely malnutritioned, he was able to walk off the boat and is gaining his strength back.

Turning to Survival for Entertainment

With all the survival entertainment that we have today we often think of these moments as an adventure. Survivorman, Man vs Wild, and the popular reality show Survivor, show the participants eating bugs, fighting off the elements, and trying to survive all within the confines of medical help if necessary.  So what are the real mental effects of knowing that help isn’t just around the corner.

When a person realizes that help isn’t coming one of two things happens, either a person accepts their fate and becomes so overwhelmed that they don’t have the ability to continue on. The second kind of person’s mind enters into a heightened state of awareness.  They realize that their fate rests on their decisions and start to tune in to what their body needs.  Once a person can overcome some of the “grossness” that is required to survive, they can quickly adapt to their surroundings.

What Happens Mentally

The bigger problem lies in what is going on in their mind.  The fact that there were two passengers on the boat would help with the mental alertness of both.  They would’ve been able to engage in conversation and keep each other sane. When his passenger passed away though, he no longer had that interactive conversation.  

People that are left in these isolation environments can develop relationships with inanimate objects and give them personalities of their own.  They can talk to them, wash them, even get enough food to feed them even though they don’t actually eat it.  Even though this takes extra resources, it gives those in isolation a sense of purpose, and that someone is relying on them.

Also the mind begins to break down without continual stimulus. Reading, watching TV, working, and recreation are all things that the mind uses to create normalcy throughout the day.  The fact that the survivor had the ability to fish would’ve helped, but doing the same tasks day after day with no ability to engage his mind in any other way could’ve created a breakdown in mental alertness.

Try to Challenge Your Mind

Living for so long with only thinking about survival can also take a toll on the mind. Experts suggest running through different scenarios in your mind of how you might be rescued, ways to get food the next day, where you plan to travel, and what you would do in case of an accident.  Also thinking about loved ones back home and what their reactions would be to see you return safely. These mental exercises can help you stay aware of your surroundings and prepare of the unexpected. Ivan is very fortunate to have survived, and it shows that the human will to live, can push a person to do extraordinary things to survive.


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