Psychological Health of Astronauts


Some professions require the highest degrees of self-controling psychological and behavioral reflexes; as in the case of firefighters and surgeons, just to name a couple, for any misconduct while performing can lead to uncompensated losses. There is, however, a profession that exceeds normal expectations; astronauts, whether male or female, are selected carefully, after grueling scientific, cultural, physical, and mental tests, with psychological health testing being of utmost importance.

A team of psychiatrists observe the changes that occur to the astronauts psychological health. They face great pressures because of their work in sealed, narrow rooms 24 hours a day, away from their family and friends. This leads to feelings of loneliness and confinement simultaneously, which can unhinge any normal person. Dr. Nick Kanas, a psychology expert at the University of California and Chief Psychiatrist at San Fransisco Hospital, studies the behavior of astronauts under these circumstances, and he is now studying the crews of the international space station. Crew members fill out surveys about their psychological health and daily feelings in space and inside the spaceship, after which Dr. Kanas analyzes these forms and studies the information gathered from them. Several studies revealed interesting behaviors among astronauts.

The most significant observation is that most of them control their feelings when in need of control. This is very important, because the problem with controlling psychological and nervous behavior lies in the suppression of feelings and the inability to control them for long periods of time up to six months, which may lead to self-destruction. Psychologists know that the normal person needs to relax from time to time to regain control of his/her feelings after the relief of stress. However, this is inapplicable in the case of astronauts; they live under continuous stress and there is not enough time to relax and regain their energy, so astronauts are special.

Astronauts tend to have a diminishing ability to socially communicate with their colleagues inside the spaceship. After they live with each other for a long time, it becomes difficult for them to listen to each other; as such, tension and pressure increase. One way to get rid of this pressure is blaming the leadership of the space mission; it is their way to get rid of stress. Sometimes, people yell at their own children instead of their bosses, this is known as “transference”, and it helps them get rid of anxiety and stress, but can lead to family problems and does not solve the problem.

According to Dr. Kanas, when spaceship crew members say they suffer from anxiety and stress, this indicates they do not get sufficient support from ground control during this period. When ground control is under pressure or stress, it means there is insufficient support from management, which is transferred all over again. Transference can, thus, be devastating, because the main problems remain unresolved. The problems that may occur during training for several months on a military ship, for example, would be multiplied if the trip is to Mars and will last for three years, during which the crew will be in complete isolation. If a psychological problem emerged, they will have to deal with it themselves, so the longer the astronauts are trained, the better the situation is.

Researches state that the changes in the astronaut psychological state can be predicted during the space mission. Kanas says that an astronaut exerts his/her utmost effort up to the middle of a long mission, then he/she realizes there is another half with the same duration so depression onsets. If it is like this in space, then astronauts should expect it. Moreover, the kind of support provided by mission control has to change as the mission progresses. Scientists found that the most successful leaders at the beginning of the mission are those who are commited to mission goals and achieve them. However, during the second part of the mission, the most successful leaders are those who take care of the emotional side and take care of the crew's feelings.

Kanas says that mission leaders must be trained on how to deal with the crew’s emotional needs in order to support their crew throughout the mission. This is Basic Collective Psychology, which will lead to understanding these behavioral cases and benefit from their results in future space missions.

*Cover image credits: link

This article was published in SCIplanet printed magazine, Autumn 2017 Issue.

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