Astronomy for Mental Health

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety contributed significantly to the global burden of disease. The increase in social isolation, economic inequity, political unrest, and other stressors have only served to increase the prevalence of these illnesses in populations across the world. Moreover, the measures taken to decrease the spread of the virus such as lockdowns and restrictions on social interactions—while necessary—have drastically reduced the type and quantity of coping mechanisms available for people to take care of their mental health. In response to these problems, the project ‘Astronomy for Mental Health’ (part of the OAD Flagship on “Astronomy for Humanity”) aims to explore how various modes of astronomy, including stargazing and education, can be a viable tool for improving mental well-being.

Findings in psychology research demonstrate that time spent in nature has positive effects on mental wellbeing, such as decreasing stress and increasing attention span[1]. Additionally, psychology research findings also show that an experience which elicits a sense of awe increases altruistic behavior in humans[2]. Astronomy lies at the intersection of these two phenomena—stargazing is a way for people to be exposed to natural environments, and perceiving and/or learning about the vastness of the universe is very often accompanied by an experience of awe. ‘Astronomy for Mental Health’ hopes to tap into these characteristics of astronomy in order to produce restorative effects and increase mental well-being.

In addition to the aforementioned qualities, several other features of astronomy stand out that would make it a useful coping mechanism:

  • Social distance friendly: a group of people can observe the night sky while remaining at safe distances from one another, and lessons about the universe can be communicated over online platforms.
  • Low cost and accessible: even without the use of equipment such as telescopes, naked-eye star gazing is accessible to anyone who has access to reasonably dark skies.
  • Indigenous narratives: the experience of looking at the night sky can be enriched by making links to existing cultural narratives and myths surrounding constellations, cosmology. This enables people to learn from their local cultures and histories, providing an additional tool for creating meaning in life. Additionally, the use of narratives in teaching astronomy-related content can make otherwise abstract concepts digestible and memorable.

Expected outputs

  • Put out an iterative resource such as a podcast which:
    • Teaches people about general concepts in astronomy – such as the size and time scales of the universe, the motion of the planets, etc.
    • When appropriate, connect these concepts with indigenous narratives and myths
    • Demonstrate how knowledge of these concepts (along with the experiences such as star-gazing) can provide tools for improving mental well-being
  • Data that document the effects that the resource has on users – obtained using targeted questionnaires
  • Downstream positive effects on:
    • the environment: Increased appreciation of astronomy by the general public can serve as good incentive to work towards practices that preserve the visibility of the night sky, such decreasing light pollution and increasing air quality. Additionally, gaining a ‘big-picture’ perspective from learning about the universe may foster a sense of global citizenship[3]
    • education and technology: the familiarity with the night sky that this project hopes to encourage can motivate greater participation from young people in STEM-related fields, as well as the development of physical infrastructure such as telescopes and observatories

Key steps in carrying out this flagship

  1. Collaborate with practicing psychologists: making connections with mental health professionals will ensure that each step we take in the implementation of this project is well grounded in psychology practice and research. The professionals we work with will serve to provide insight on various mental states—such as depression, anxiety, grief, etc.—to deepen our understanding of what mental states people are experiencing, and the types of tools that will be most helpful. Additionally, they will provide advice on the how to potentially address these mental states in a responsible and ethical manner
  2. Review psychological literature: research[4] reviewed in preparation for this project show that time spent in nature has positive effects on mental wellbeing, including: decreasing stress, and increasing attention span. Additionally, research shows that an experience which elicits a sense of awe[5] increases altruistic behavior in humans. By encouraging people to spend time under the night sky, and teaching them about the universe, this project aims to tap into both these effects.
  3. Identify mental states to focus on: different mental states and/or conditions that people might experience have different causes, symptoms, and treatments. As such, we will identify those that can be benefit the most from astronomy
  4. Distribute – to OAD/IAU’s global network of regional offices and project leaders
  5. Qualitative questionnaires: to be designed in partnership with trained psychologists and could include questions such as: how does ___ make you feel that ? what are some reactions that you have when you hear ___? and the text that goes in the blanks would be some aspect of astronomy
  6. Create iteratively: incorporate feedback that we receive from users into subsequent episodes of the resource

[1] Berto R. The Role of Nature in Coping with Psycho-Physiological Stress: A Literature Review on Restorativeness. Behavioral Sciences. 2014; 4(4):394-409. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs4040394

[2] Piff, P.K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D.M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108 6, 883-99 .

[3] See Pale Blue Dot Project for more information: https://astro4dev.eu/projects/pale-blue-dot

[4] See footnote 1

[5] See footnote 2