Psychologists prepare shrink-in-space plan

By ED SUSMAN, UPI Science News  |  Aug. 23, 2002 at 5:21 PM
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CHICAGO, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- concerned about mental illness possibly emerging among astronauts during long space missions -- have contracted with researchers to devise programs to help people detect their own mental health problems and those of fellow crew members.

The idea is to prevent, say, your fellow crewman on the trip to Mars, or beyond, from starting to act funny, mumbling about ending it all and glancing strangely and longingly at the mechanism that controls the spacecraft's airlock. Or maybe, after three months on the International Space Station, they could help you work when all you want is float in weightless space above your bunk.

"We have completed the first year of the project," said James Carter, a clinical psychologist and professor at Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H., "and we expect it to continue for at least another year or two."

The project is being funded under a two-year, $440,000 grant from the NASA-backed National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston.

Carter said there already have been a few documented cases of mental and behavioral problem on board Russian and Soviet space stations. For example, one crew member reported being suspicious of the activities of another. On another mission, concerned crew members reported to Earth one astronaut appeared depressed and would not work. In a third incident, a male crew member grabbed a woman on the craft and, pulling her out of camera view, forcibly kissed her.

"There have been some similar things occurring on American space flights," Carter said during his presentation at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, adding none of the those incidents has been publicized.

Although most of the candidates for space exploration have undergone extensive physical and psychological screening, Carter said there still is the problem of how long-term space travel -- with its isolation, close quarters, time away from home, tediousness and inherent danger -- could impact mental health.

The prototype system Carter is developing would include self-guided procedures for preventing psycho-social problems -- particularly geared to managing stress, interpersonal conflicts and mild depression.

He also is creating a test for assessing psycho-social problems that astronauts could conduct themselves or with the assistance of other crew members aboard the spacecraft. Those systems might also be guided by computer programming.

In addition, medical personnel would receive training in prescribing and administering psychotropic medications.

"The medical officer on a space flight could be a medical doctor or someone with 40 hours of medical training," Carter noted. The system he is developing also would provide educational support and service for individuals and groups.

"These programs that are being developed for space will also be helpful down on Earth," said Marlene Maheu, a psychologist and president of Pioneer Development Resources in San Diego.

"Just as other products developed for the space program have become everyday items here on Earth, the programs being created for spacecraft crew will find a use here in dealing with people who have feelings of isolation," Maheu told United Press International.

"This work has very practical applications for staff and patients in mental health and public health centers," she said.

Carter said the system also could be applied to other earthside situations, such as polar exploration stations, offshore oil rigs, submarines and underwater research stations.

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