The Astronomy for Mental Health flagship is focused on harnessing the inspirational potential of astronomy, and using it as a tool for improving people’s mental health and wellbeing. The overarching goal is to use astronomy to empower individuals and communities to reach their full potential.
- Improving Mental Health and Wellbeing through Astronomy: Our mission is to utilize diverse methods within the realm of astronomy, such as stargazing and educational initiatives, to address mental health challenges effectively. By harnessing the rejuvenating impact of nature and fostering a profound sense of awe through contemplation of the expansive universe, we aim to create a context or setting for self-exploration and reflection.
- Interdisciplinary Collaborations: Through interdisciplinary collaborations we aim to further explore the unique benefits of using astronomy as a tool for improving mental health outcomes.
- Accessibility: Dedicated to fostering accessibility, we strive to promote cost-effective astronomy activities, emphasizing naked-eye stargazing. We enhance this experience by seamlessly intertwining it with local cultural narratives and myths, aiming to render astronomy-related content more easily understandable and memorable for everyone.
- Research, Evaluation, and Iterative Improvement: Committed to delivering effective tools grounded in the latest best practices, we prioritize ongoing engagement with mental health professionals and thorough reviews of psychological literature. Our mission is to establish our project on a foundation built upon robust psychological practices and research. Moreover, we actively encourage and integrate feedback, along with data obtained through targeted questionnaires and qualitative assessments, to continually enhance our initiatives.
- Global Distribution and Community Engagement: Striving to facilitate the widespread impact of our project, we effectively distribute resources and actively engage with the OAD/IAU’s global network of regional offices and project leaders. Through strategic collaboration, we aim to ensure a broad reach and impactful implementation of the project’s objectives on a global scale. We also offer opportunities for training of individuals and organizations to use the resources, materials, and tools created.
- Piloting/testing: Test resources, workshops, interventions and ideas with various groups within various settings and formats to identify what has the best potential to improve mental health and wellbeing. Conduct research into the potential of astronomy as a tool to improve mental health and wellbeing.
- Advocacy and Awareness: Promoting the benefits of Astronomy for Mental Health through advocacy efforts, public awareness campaigns, and partnerships with relevant organizations.
Embodying a holistic approach, this flagship initiative intertwines astronomy, education, community engagement, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Its purpose is to address mental health issues and contribute to human development and wellbeing on a global scale.
“State of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” .
“Wellbeing refers to a state of being healthy, happy, and comfortable, both physically and mentally. It encompasses a sense of contentment and satisfaction with your life, and a positive outlook on your personal and professional experiences” .
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” .
MENTAL HEALTH: A GLOBAL IMPERATIVE
In recent years, mental health has emerged as a significant global concern. Alarming trends reveal an increasing burden of anxiety and depression, further exacerbated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stressors such as job loss, physical health challenges, and social isolation due to lockdown restrictions have heightened this issue. The growing levels of anxiety and depression underscore the need for innovative and accessible coping mechanisms, even in the face of global crises .
Astronomy for Mental Health: Bridging the Gap
Recognizing the pressing need for accessible mental health support, the Office of Astronomy for Development has initiated the “Astronomy for Mental Health” project. In alignment with our overarching goal of using astronomy as a tool for development, this project explores how the cosmos can improve mental health and well-being.
Mental health is a critical component of global development, incorporated in Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Good health and well-being, target 3.4 of SDG 3 specifically calls for the promotion of mental health and well-being .
SUMMARY OF LITERATURE
Majority of the exploratory work comes from the following works: “The role of nature in coping with psycho-physiological stress: A literature review on restorativeness and Awe, the small self, and prosocial behaviour” [6-8].
The research shows exposure to natural environments can restore mental capacities and reduce stress. Astronomical sights like the night sky, planets, and stars could have similar restorative benefits. Gazing at the awe-inspiring cosmos may provide calming fascination that captures attention effortlessly, allowing recovery from directed attention fatigue. The vastness and beauty of astronomical phenomena could also elicit profound feelings of awe that expand our frame of reference. By making one feel small compared to the grandeur of the universe, astronomy may shift focus away from oneself to a broader human identity. This diminished ‘small self’ can make people feel connected to others and concerned for humanity’s shared interests. Across studies, awe has been shown to elicit ethical, helpful, and generous actions.
In essence, interacting with the astronomical world could improve cognitive skills depleted by mental fatigue and stress through restorative attention. Experiencing cosmic awe could also increase prosocial attitudes and concern for human interests in general by eliciting a small self. Astronomy’s combination of being restorative and awe-inspiring makes it well-suited as a tool to improve well-being. By inspiring shared humanity, astronomical awe could make people feel and act more connected. Facilitating engagement with astronomical environments and phenomena thus holds great potential for both personal restoration and increased compassion.
There are countless blogs and individual experiences recorded of the benefit that stargazing can have to the point that a new term “sky-chology” came about in a blog parroting the same accepted benefits such as calm and reduction in stress and anxiety [9, 10].
Exploring Astronomy’s Role in Mental Health
While there is a substantial body of research on the benefits of exposure to nature, there has been limited exploration of astronomy’s specific role in enhancing mental health. However, preliminary interventions have indicated that activities like stargazing can indeed have a positive impact on mental well-being and empower communities facing psychological challenges.
 World Health Organization. (n.d.). Health and Well-Being. Retrieved November 24, 2023, from https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/major-themes/health-and-well-being
 Wellbeing People. (n.d.). What is wellbeing? | Wellbeing People. Retrieved November 24, 2023, from https://www.wellbeingpeople.com/what-is-wellbeing/
 Mindfull Staff. (2017, January 11). Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness – Mindful. https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
 COVID-19 Mental Disorders Collaborators. “Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The Lancet, vol. 398, no. 10312, 2021, pp. 1700-1712.
 Mills, China. “From ‘Invisible Problem’ to Global Priority: The Inclusion of Mental Health in the Sustainable Development Goals.” Development and Change, vol. 49, no. 3, 2018, pp. 843-866.
 Berto, Rita. “The role of nature in coping with psycho-physiological stress: a literature review on restorativeness.” Behavioral Sciences (Basel), vol. 4, no. 4, 2014, 394–409.
 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), 883-899.
 Ohly, Heatherly. “Attention Restoration Theory: A Systematic Review of the Attention Restoration Potential of Exposure to Natural Environments.” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part B, vol. 19, no. 7, 2016, pp. 305-343.
 Miller, M. M. F. (2020). Stargazing: A Magical Way to Escape. https://www.shondaland.com/live/body/a33419686/stargazing-a-magical-way-to-cenchanting-respite/
 Unplugged. (2023). What is ‘Skychology’? How looking at the sky can boost your wellbeing. https://unplugged.rest/blog/what-is-skychology-and-what-are-the-benefits
open access guidelines on practical steps, tools, resources, and examples for planning, adapting or reviewing programs or interventions targeting mental health and well-being
Workshop on Astronomy for Mental Health run by the IAPS (International Association of Physics Students) and OAD
information and workbooks on coping with anxiety and depression
article on the “Intersection Between Astronomy and Mental Health” in the Mental Health Matters magazine
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