From space missions to social distancing: managing mental health on Earth and Mars

Interplanetary travel is exciting business. But a mission to Mars is not without its challenges – stress, microgravity, prolonged confinement, and limited exposure to sunlight can all impact an astronaut’s mental health.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the recent COVID-19 lockdowns have been a similar, albeit diluted, experience.

Now, thanks to a collaboration between Deakin University and the Texas Medical Center, research into treating mental health in space can help us respond to similar challenges on Earth.

In their recent paper, ‘Promoting Tech Transfer Between Space and Global Mental Health’, a team of academics – including Deakin’s Professor Michael Berk and Adjunct Associate Professor Harris Eyre – discuss the mental health challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

As part of their research, they will be investigating the benefits of health interventions as preventative measures for poor mental health.

Device-based psychotherapy is one such intervention.

Chatbots that are equipped to read into speech patterns and facial expression to determine someone’s level of distress can act as a digital approach to traditional face-to-face talk therapy.

“In space, digital approaches are necessary,” says A/Prof Eyre. “There’s a lack of trained therapists in the capsule, and a time delay of 15 minutes or more means real-time therapy isn’t possible.”

He says that, despite these challenges, it’s important to maintain some form of psychotherapy.

“You can imagine a small group of astronauts going to Mars on a mission that takes over 400 days, and in a confined space, will suffer a lot of distress.

“Therapy is needed to prevent them from developing depression and being unable to respond to catastrophic issues.”

Nutritional interventions can also help prevent a decline in mental wellbeing. Consuming wholefoods and relevant supplements can help cultivate good bacteria in the gut, which is known to benefit the brain.

“This extrapolates well to the current dilemma where we know poor diet is a risk factor for mental health on Earth,” says Professor Berk.

Exercise, too, is a big priority for astronauts – though it can be tricky to manage in microgravity.

Aerobic, strength and stretching exercises can help maintain muscle mass and bone density, which A/Prof Eyre says are critical for mental health.

These can be encouraged using smart watches, which prompt wearers to move around if they’ve spent too long sitting down, or by playing video games that involve physical activity.

This kind of technology is already integrated into our lives on Earth.

Space is one of the harshest environments to trial something in. A/Prof Eyre says that, if a piece of technology can work in outer space, it’s likely well-equipped for use in other challenging conditions on Earth.

For instance, scientific expeditions in Antarctica could benefit from the interventions outlined above, given their similarities to life in the space shuttle.

But they have real potential to shine in the current climate of global social isolation. We may well have a second epidemic of poor mental health on our hands.

“These technologies are critical to help people who are suffering,” A/Prof Eyre says.

Other initiatives that could benefit the public during these times include blue light therapy and GPS tracking.

A/Prof Eyre says that blue light therapy was developed by NASA to help astronauts cope with their disorienting sleep cycles while in space: they can experience 20 day to night cycles within 24 hours.

This therapy has since been used on Earth, both in mental health and in sleep medicine.

The familiar GPS might have its uses too. By tracking user’s activities, it’s possible to speculate on their emotional state.

For instance, if someone is spending long periods of time in one place, it could be a sign of depression or anxiety.

“Of course, exceptional data management – and the upholding of privacy – is critical for this to work,” A/Prof Eyre says.


Keen to find out more? Head over to Research Gate to request a full copy of the study.  

Michael Berk is a Professor in Deakin University’s School of Medicine

Harris Eyre is an Adjunct Associate Professor to Deakin’s University’s Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Transformation

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