What protects mental health from prolonged isolation in space

A certain end date and strong motivation can protect mental health from the prolonged social isolation that astronauts experience on deep space missions. This is the main result of a recent study of the Lunark project, the first simulation in the Arctic of a lunar mission.

Published on Acta Astronauticsthe research is carried out by a team of psychologists belonging to theUniversity of Milano-Bicocca, University of Messina and to University of Surrey UK.

The program lunark aims to test the architecture of a hermetic capsule similar to a lunar habitat. The two architects of the same structure lived voluntarily for 61 days in total segregation in northern Greenland. An opportunity to study thepsychological impact of prolonged social isolation in extreme environments. A condition that will have to be faced by future crews who will lead the next human explorations in deep space.

The psychological effects, however, represent a critical factor not only for the optimization of the mission: “Social isolation, if it is prolonged over time, is one of the most important risk factors for early mortality. – he pretends Paolo Rivasocial psychologist from the University of Milan Bicocca and lead author of the study, interviewed by the Italian Space Agency – Our theoretical models predict an association between experiences of prolonged isolation and a range of negative psychological states such as depression, increased anxiety, feelings of alienation”.

However, the negative effects caused by segregation would be compensated by the awareness of a certain end date of the experiment and by a strong motivation that manifests itself within a space mission.
The research, however, recorded two trends that are not at all obvious: “The the desire for social contact grows in a rather linear way in the experience of the two volunteers – continues Paolo Riva – and the state of resignation, with which we summarize the deepest negative consequences of social isolation, manifests an effect of reportthat is, a shift in consequences from one day to the next”.

Therefore, if the context of a space mission can have a protective function, the lack of social interactions remains a factor to weigh as a constant threat to the mental health of astronauts. Hence the curiosity of researchers to want to identify the conditions which, within the framework of a mission and its busy schedule of daily activities, do not necessarily lead to negative consequences for the health of people living in isolation.

“Physical exercise, free time spent on activities not strictly mission-related, and how much isolated subjects talk to each other, especially if they are discussing more personal issues, are activities associated with greater mental health,” concludes Riva.

Inserted in the study branch of the space psychologya branch that studies the consequences of environmental factors on human psychology in space travel, this research shows that isolation in an extreme environment does not necessarily lead to a state of psychological resignation, rather highlighting the decisive role of the context.

“Jobs like this can inform future training and planning for extreme environment expeditions and lunar missions,” said Konstantin Chterev, of the University of Surrey and co-author of the wellbeing study. physical with the protection of psychological well-being and the mitigation of the negative effects of long-term isolation”.

Image: the hermetic capsule of the Lunark project Credits: Saga Space Architects

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