Innovative E-Tool to Assess Mental Health in Space

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Addressing the mental health needs of astronauts on long-duration space missions could soon become easier via an innovative e-tool now entering clinical trials.

Adam Gonzalez

Adam Gonzalez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Stony Brook University

Adam Gonzalez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Stony Brook University will lead the trial, designed to inform the delivery of mental health treatments for astronauts. The NASA-funded study involves “astronaut-like” individuals and is being developed in conjunction with researchers from the Black Dog Institute in Australia.

In 2015, Gonzalez, Founding Director of the Mind Body Clinical Research Center at Stony Brook, received a four-year $1 million grant from NASA for the research to evaluate e-mental health tools for astronauts. The e-mental health program, called myCompass, is an interactive self-help tool developed by researchers from Black Dog Institute which delivers evidence-based psychological interventions for depression and anxiety, such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), entirely via online platforms. The fully automated and free program enables users to access personalized treatment plans 24/7 on their smartphones, computers or tablets.

“We are most interested in investigating the methods of delivering delayed support from a therapist when individuals are completely relying on web-based treatment,” Gonzalez said. “More specifically, this study will test different methods (i.e., video- or text-based messaging) for delivering delayed therapist support to inform best practices to use with astronauts during long duration space missions.”

The clinical trial will involve 135 participants who are demographically similar to astronauts: well-educated individuals who are relatively healthy, with elevated distress levels. Participants will include physicians, residents and graduate students.

Space station interior

Crowded conditions and isolation are known to impact astronauts’ mental health on long-duration missions. (Photo: NASA)

The trial will be the first time this technology will be tested among ‘astronaut-like’ adults to see how effective such programs could be when real-time and face-to-face psychological assistance is unavailable, and if different support functions via video-messaging or text-based messaging with a therapist are useful.

Dr Janine Clarke, leader of Black Dog Institute’s myCompass program, said the new study presents an unprecedented opportunity to test the platform in radical settings, helping researchers gain critical insights into the full potential of unguided self-help treatments delivered via the internet.

“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,” Clarke said.

“This research is critical to inform the best way for NASA to care for the mental health needs of astronauts during missions to Mars and other long duration space travel. The results may also help to serve as a guide to providing mental health care for individuals in rural settings worldwide where mental healthcare providers are few in number or access to providers is difficult,” Gonzalez said.

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