Self-help software to soothe stressed astronauts

By Devin Powell When astronauts in orbit stress out, they call Earth to chat with a NASA psychiatrist. But transmitting messages to Mars and beyond would take 20 minutes or so, requiring new approaches to mental health in space. So researchers are developing self-help software that allows space travellers to carry their counsellors with them on a DVD. Astronauts and cosmonauts go through psychological screening before they are selected for duty, and they are trained to deal with the pressures of risky space missions. Proposed crewed missions to Mars, though, would be a challenge even for these hardened space farers. Each leg of the trip would take at least six months, and the entire mission could last up to three years. Astronauts would live in cramped quarters, their actions constantly monitored and scheduled by others. They would face monotonous days in empty space with nothing to do and nowhere to go if something went wrong. “It will be a bit like prison,” says Steven Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Messages to and from Earth would take up to 20 minutes to relay – so travellers to Mars would be, in many ways, on their own. So James Carter of Harvard Medical School and colleagues are creating a new self-help tool that the astronauts can take with them – a piece of multimedia-heavy software called the “Virtual Space Station”. It asks crew members to respond to multiple-choice questions about how to handle various problems that may arise in space and to make lists of their worries and how to solve them. It focuses on mental health challenges that were highlighted by a panel of 11 astronauts. One element of the Virtual Space Station is an interpersonal conflict widget designed by Leonard Greenhalgh of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. Its interactive videos ask the user to negotiate and resolve conflicts. In one scenario, for example, an actor playing a fellow crew member accidentally unplugs a critical computer and asks the user to cover up the mistake. The user picks a series of responses, and Greenhalgh appears and suggests what could have been done differently. “It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book,” says Carter. Such a program might have helped prevent fistfights that broke out among Russian study participants in 2001 in a long-term isolation chamber experiment meant to mimic the conditions in space. When two groups of the participants were released for a New Year’s party, fights ensued. These videos – meant to help astronauts develop self-awareness of their own behaviours – have already been used to train groups of new astronauts. Further group studies will test their effectiveness in other stressful professions that rely on teamwork: first responders to emergencies and fire-fighters. The second module of the Virtual Space Station focuses on depression, using an approach called “problem-solving therapy”, which is both clinically effective and relatively simple to encode into a software program. Instead of asking astronauts to reflect on their feelings, Mark Hegel of Dartmouth Medical School has them create lists of concrete things that are bothering them and brainstorm about practical ways to solve them. At the end of the exercise, users fill out a form used to diagnose depression. Clinical tests of this approach, which has never been tried in a multimedia self-help format, will start in a few months, using subjects recruited from the biomedical and engineering community in Boston. The Virtual Space Station team hopes that their tool will prove useful not only for the space community,
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