Dark Sky Writing Retreat Rejuvenates Students

The OAD’s Astronomy for Mental Health team recently collaborated with the Centre for Sustainability Transitions (CST) in Stellenbosch to organize an innovative writing retreat for Master’s and PhD students. This unique blend of academia and night sky activities aimed to explore the potential of dark sky areas in enhancing concentration and fostering productivity, particularly in scholarly endeavors such as writing.

The significance of the retreat towards the Mental Health Flagship aimed to harness Astronomy’s restorative effects. Behavioral science links exposure to natural settings with reduced physiological stress and mental fatigue, addressing symptoms like irritability and impulsiveness. Nature’s soft fascination regulates attention, promoting relaxation and tranquility, deterring pessimistic thoughts. Contact with nature, including Dark Nature activities, reduces anxiety and enhances mental well-being by engaging multiple senses. Stargazing, for example, merges awe-inspiring feelings with the unique ambiance of a nocturnal setting, offering a holistic mental rejuvenation.

Our retreat in Sutherland, the remote town synonymous with the SALT telescope, sought to unravel the mysteries surrounding the connection between Astronomy and mental health. The group, comprising two members of the OAD team and eight postgraduate students from the CST, delved into various activities during their time in Sutherland. This was a long week retreat that consisted of various activities.

Stargazing was a prominent evening activity, complemented by explorations into the correlation between Astronomy and Mental Health, visits to the SALT site, and planetarium excursions. Participants had access to a Celestron telescope and Galileoscopes, enabling them to engage in stargazing sessions during the group discussions or solitary observations at their convenience. Daytime hours were dedicated to individual writing, with evenings reserved for discussions on diverse astronomical and psychological concepts.

The OAD team seized the opportunity to engage with the SAAO outreach officer in Sutherland, exploring potential outreach initiatives during the retreat. A dedicated exam preparation session was conducted for local school learners, offering valuable study tips for their ongoing exams. Furthermore, a meeting with the local social worker occurred, focusing on a discussion about the challenges faced by the communities and potential interventions.

Positive feedback was received from the participants, with many expressing satisfaction in accomplishing their writing goals during the retreat. Beyond the successful completion of their writing tasks, participants also conveyed their appreciation for delving into the fascinating and enlightening realm of Astronomy. The conversations and discussions on Astronomy were particularly enjoyable for them. To gather further insights into their retreat experience and to gather feedback on potential enhancements for future retreats, a survey was distributed.

The retreat emerged as a success, offering valuable insights that will significantly contribute to our ongoing initiatives in developing resources for mental well-being retreats in remote areas, such as observatories and dark sky nature reserves. The experience provided numerous lessons, marking a positive step forward in our collective efforts.

For reflections on the retreat from one of the participants, please visit: https://www.astro4dev.org/writing-in-a-universe-of-peace-and-chaos/