Preparing for a 30,000km/h take-off, orbiting earth from 75.3 million kilometres away or living on an uninhabitable planet for a couple of years could all generate some anxiety or depression, which is why NASA is funding research into an ehealth treatment tool produced by the Black Dog Institute.
As part of its plans for colonising Mars, the US space program is looking into the delivery of mental health treatments to patients up to 300 days away from earth, and myCompass could be ideal for providing interstellar assistance.
Developed by researchers at the Australian mental health not-for-profit as an interactive self-help tool, the online platform will be studied in the NASA-funded clinical trial beginning this month for possible use by astronauts on long-duration space missions.
Previous studies have shown the clinical effectiveness of myCompass in reducing mental health symptoms in earth-bound people with mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety and stress. Now the technology will be tested among “astronaut-like” adults.
Head of the Black Dog Institute’s myCompass program Dr Janine Clarke said the new study represents an unprecedented opportunity to see how effective the program can be when real-time, face-to-face psychological help is unavailable.
“With missions to Mars expected to take over two years to complete, equipping astronauts with strategies to handle not only extreme physical environments but also psychological distress is vital,” Clarke said.
“Astronauts are at a high risk of experiencing mental distress for a range of reasons. They are generally extremely high achieving, on mission they experience long-term social isolation, they confront ongoing physical strain and mental challenges including persistent threats to their safety, and they have limited access to the types of supports that many of us take for granted, including ready access to friends and family, and physical activity.”
Researching the use of myCompass by those in high-pressure conditions will determine whether ultra-remote video or text messaging with therapists is useful.
The clinical trial is being conducted at the US’s Stony Brook University, which received a four-year $1 million grant in 2015 through NASA’s Human Research Program.
Currently astronauts travel to the International Space Station where direct phone and video contact allows for regular check-ups with their ground-based behavioural health experts. However, communications on Mars will be time-lagged by up to 44 minutes.
The 12-week trial will involve 135 participants who are demographically similar to occupants of interplanetary craft: well-educated individuals in university settings who are relatively healthy but have elevated distress levels, including physicians, residents and graduate students. Therapist support for some of those will be designed to mimic celestial settings.
The researchers also hope the results will provide insights into mental health care closer to home, such as in rural settings worldwide.