Living with Mental Health Risks in an Alien Space

3 min read

What does it feel like to live in a space shuttle? Out in space, our body reacts differently to the environment which can affect our mental and emotional well-being. Astronauts living in the International Space Station (ISS) experience this first hand when they are on their long-term space missions.

Living and working in space may sound cool, but it comes with several risks. Other than potential exposure to radiation, astronauts are prone to anxiety, depression and sleeping disorders because of their living situation.

An Alien Environment

Living inside the International Space Station is an entirely new environment. Astronauts are required to adjust to zero gravity while being confined to a 109 metres space with up to 10 other astronauts at any point of time. This is where they work and live with their crew for the duration of their six – 12 months missions.

At the same time, they face isolation from their loved ones and a drastic change from their daily earth routine. Together with the challenge of working in a physically demanding environment, this can cause anxiety and depression.

To boost mental wellness, astronauts are encouraged to journal in order to vent out frustrations and video calls to friends and family to constantly stay connected. On top of that, they are able to bring personal items to accompany them during the trip and are provided with fresh food like fruits to improve mood.

Losing Sleep

Did you know astronauts see the sun rise and set 16 times a day in the ISS? This is because the ISS orbits the Earth 15.5 times a day at the speed of 17, 150 miles per hour. However, the irregularity of the sun drastically affects the astronaut’s circadian rhythm which cause sleep disturbances and eventually fatigue. Additionally, the light, noise, vibration, and temperature of their work and living environment can be an added stressor and contribute to a lack of sleep.

Losing sleep can decrease an astronaut’s executive function, which is involved in our decision-making and concentration, and can be damaging to one’s mental health. This can potentially be dangerous as the astronaut is more prone to making mistakes. Not to mention, a person with lack of sleep is easily irritable!

To help adjust their circadian rhythm, astronauts are provided with LED light that replicates a false day and night schedule. Currently, scientists are developing various technologies to monitor sleep in space in hopes to improve the astronauts’ sleep quality. 

Mental Health Matters

Even before becoming astronauts, candidates are subjected to hours of psychiatric screening during the selection process. This is to ensure that they will be able to handle the mental strains of being an astronaut. From there, astronauts are required to go through additional psychological evaluation and support before, during and after the mission. This includes psychological conferences with ground-based medical staff while onboard the ISS.

The experiences of crew members have also led to the development of C-O-N-N-E-C-T – a concept to ensure the crew take the time to care for themselves and their mental well-being. As of now, there are a lot of research revolving around protecting and strengthening mental as well as teamwork in space during long-term missions.

The mental strain of working in space should not be taken lightly. As we continue to see further development in space travel, let’s hope we can also improve the effects it has on our mental health.

Written by Julaila Latiff
Illustrations by Jarrod Chua, Spaceytales  


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