In a world where academic pursuits often take center stage, the well-being of postgraduate students is a topic of increasing concern. On September 15, 2023, a unique event took place that delved deep into the minds of postgrads, shedding light on their mental health struggles and coping strategies. The Astronomy for Mental Health team, in collaboration with select members of the OAD team, hosted a focus group session that brought together students from diverse fields, with the majority pursuing degrees in Physics.
The primary aim of this session? To uncover the factors that influence the mental health of postgraduate students, explore their creative coping mechanisms, and collect valuable feedback on ongoing resource development efforts.
The session kicked off with a cosmic twist – introductions. Each participant shared their academic background and role, setting the stage for a vibrant exchange of ideas. Following this, a brief presentation introduced the participants to the OAD (Office of Astronomy for Development) and the Astronomy for Mental Health Project. To create a comfortable and immersive atmosphere, a 5-minute video produced by the OAD, aptly titled “Hope through Astronomy,” was screened.
The heart of the discussion lay in the exploration of the video’s themes. As the participants shared their thoughts, a constellation of ideas emerged. Many spoke of the solace they found in stargazing and the profound perspective gained from contemplating the vastness of the universe. This led to intriguing discussions about the potential connection between astronomy and mental well-being.
While astronomy often conjures images of sprawling, star-filled skies, the reality is that many universities are nestled in light-polluted urban areas. This limitation did not dampen the participants’ enthusiasm. They highlighted that, even with a limited view of the stars, the act of stargazing itself can be deeply meaningful. Alternative activities, such as watching the sunrise and sunset, were also championed, emphasizing the calming effect of these nature-based experiences.
Given the prevalence of astronomy students in the group, the conversation naturally shifted towards incorporating astronomy as a tool for coping with the stress and pressures of their studies. It was intriguing to observe their genuine enthusiasm for reconnecting with the night sky. Often, their research involved digital data and telescope images, creating a disconnect from the physical cosmos. This renewed connection to the stars became a source of solace.
The conversation then ventured into the mental state of postgraduate students approaching the culmination of their MSc or PhD studies. Participants candidly shared experiences of depression and exhaustion during this demanding phase. The consensus was clear: there is a need to better communicate the potential impact of postgraduate studies on mental health right from the beginning. Preparation is key to navigating the cosmic challenges ahead.
Triggers for mental health issues were explored, including the role of supervisors. Opinions varied, with some students expressing satisfaction with their supervisors, while others chose to remain silent on the matter. However, a common thread emerged: compatibility between student and supervisor personalities is crucial for a stable working relationship. Additional triggers, such as the fear of failure and self-criticism, were also identified.
The session took an exciting turn as participants explored how astronomy concepts could be linked to daily life, offering tools for enhancing mental well-being. Constellations became metaphors for human connections, celestial events symbolized life’s cyclical nature, and the therapeutic value of watching sunrises, sunsets, and stargazing became apparent. The cosmos, it seemed, had much to offer in terms of mental rejuvenation.
Addressing the challenge of initiating conversations and interventions on mental health, participants emphasized the importance of the environment. While traditional circle discussions may not always be effective, natural settings like Sutherland, with its dark skies, were proposed as ideal places for postgraduate students to unwind and reconnect with the cosmos. For those without access to such heavenly settings, planetariums were suggested as substitutes, and collaboration with amateur astronomy groups for workshops and discussions in dark sky areas was also recommended.
The session concluded on a stellar note, focusing on the idea that mental fitness is just as crucial as physical fitness. Concepts like Attention Restorative Therapy (ART) and Relational Framework Theory (RFT) were introduced as tools to enhance mental well-being. Physical exercise was also emphasized as a key component of maintaining good mental health.
In essence, this thought-provoking and informative session illuminated various facets of mental health among postgraduate students. It underscored the need for more gatherings of this nature and the development of accessible resources to tackle the pressing issue of mental health in academia. As we journey through the cosmos of academia, let’s not forget to look after the well-being of the cosmic explorers who dare to venture into the unknown.