Inner space at the final frontier

The Psychologist has a truly fantastic article on astronaut psychology, treating off-world mental health problems, and the interpersonal dynamics of the space mission.

It is thoroughly fascinating, exceptionally well-written and even contains an interview with astronaut Dr Jay Buckley “a crew member with STS-90, Space Shuttle Columbia’s 16-day Neurolab mission in 1998. The seven-member crew conducted life science experiments focusing on the effects of microgravity on the brain and nervous system.”

I think I’ve just wet myself.

One of my favourite bits is where it discusses what measures they take to maintain the astronauts’ mental health.

This is no small problem and the article notes that psychological problems have been the leading medical cause of long-duration mission terminations.

Depression is apparently a key problem. The article ominously notes that no-one has yet had to use the on-board antidepressant medication, but it does describe a computerised psychological treatment for depression as part of the on-board software package the ‘Virtual Space Station’.

The Virtual Space Station’s depression module will follow the problem-solving treatment (PST) approach to therapy. James Cartreine, the principal investigator on the Virtual Space Station project, says his team chose this form of intervention because it is empirically supported and has high face validity – in other words, it’s immediately apparent to users of the Virtual Space Station how the interactive programme is going to help them.

‘The active ingredient of PST is behavioral activation,’ says Cartreine, ‘getting people with depression to do something – and helping them to feel good about their efforts, whether or not their efforts were successful.’

Because of its focus on identifying problems and working out possible solutions, PST can help combat feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which is particularly appropriate for people isolated in space in a confined environment. The fact that it’s tangible – it’s geared towards solving observable problems as opposed to cognitive problems – also makes it suitable for astronauts, who have proven to be accepting of the intervention. ‘Astronauts are physical scientists, engineers and programmers – they’re not necessarily used to thinking about their thought processes,’ says Cartreine.

If you’re interested in how the same topic looked in 1959, we discussed some unintentionally hilarious articles from a special issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry on a rather Freudian ‘space psychiatry’ from that very same year.

Link to Psychologist article ‘New horizons’.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist and I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut.

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