Since 2011, the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) has funded over 200 projects that use astronomy as a tool to address challenges in communities and achieve SDGs. OAD’s Dana Ficut-Vicas and Maria Alejandra Diaz write on the changes these projects are creating in their communities.
Mental health disorders are currently one of the biggest challenges to global well-being, and this has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Armenia, where one of the project coordinators is based, the pandemic has also been accompanied by a war that has resulted in large numbers of displaced citizens. The result has been a profound impact on mental well-being.
Because of its connection to nature and its inspirational qualities, astronomy harbors great potential to improve mental health. Thus, it could be a powerful tool to assist people, including vulnerable communities.
Armine Patatanyan is based in Armenia and has a background in International Relations, Human Rights, and Conflict Management. She has experience in humanitarian settings, having worked, among other projects, in women empowerment and refugee integration programs. She became interested in astronomy after a powerful, emotional experience during an astronomy exhibition: she felt she had found a tool to appreciate the beauty of life and deal with life’s challenges, a feeling she has defined as ‘cosmic empowerment’. Since then, she has been working on astronomy outreach projects to share this cosmic perspective with as many people as possible. This has culminated in her current fellowship with the OAD, in which she is working on the Astronomy for Mental Health project.
The Astronomy for Mental Health project explores how astronomy can help improve the mental well-being of vulnerable groups. After conducting research on the topic and discussing it with different professionals (psychologists, astronomers, social workers, etc.), the project implemented different astronomy activities designed to foster mental health and then measured its impact. The activities were designed to integrate cognitive aspects, such as astronomical knowledge, emotional aspects, such as the beauty of cosmos, and sociological aspects, such as the power of astronomy to bring people together.
The project has targeted different countries and demographics, with the activities being tailored for each group. The direct audience in Armenia were 13 children with mental health needs. Their siblings, parents, and staff of the support center were indirectly affected by the project as well. The results are promising. Participants were excited about the topics and asked many questions, and the results show remarkable signs of change in their behavior and mood. There were, among others, clear signs of motivation, openness, and absence of negativity. Moreover, a sense of community seemed to develop among participants, who were listening and supporting each other. This was supported by the assessment questionnaires, which show that the value the kids placed on interpersonal relationships became more pronounced. Specialists have also commented these activities have the potential to improve their attention span, but currently, this has not been measured.
Before this, similar pilot activities had been implemented in Nigeria. Results showed a decrease in cases of depression and anxiety, and the audience asked for these activities to continue.
In Spain, the direct audience were around 90 elderly people from different care centers. The results so far show participants were highly satisfied with the activity and feel it contributed to enhancing their self-esteem and rise in positive emotions.
In South Africa, the direct audience were 20 care-workers. Participants noted that the workshop allowed them to experience how astronomy can be used as a tool in the mental health setting.
There are plans to expand the Astronomy for Mental Health project by incorporating new locations and new target groups, like mental health facilities, prisons, or people in disaster zones.
Moreover, this project is defined by interdisciplinary collaboration: astronomy outreach and educational activities are enriched by psychology, and likewise, astronomy provides tools for psychological interventions. This means the project could eventually expand to help other disciplines as well
“Our goal is not only relief of symptoms, but also empowerment. When we see the empowerment of people, we see their full engagement in life, their enjoyment of life and their participation in the community, in the lives of other people.” – Armine Patatanyan, project coordinator.
Astronomy for Mental Health meets at least two SDG targets.
Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
3.4 By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being
Through its activities, the project is promoting the mental well-being of its participants. Results among all the branches of the project show an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative ones.
Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Target 4.5 By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations.
By conducting educational and inspirational activities with vulnerable groups, the project is reducing inequalities in STEM education. The activities could also have the potential of improving the attention span of the participants.
Astronomy as a field is in a very special position to foster mental health. It is multidisciplinary, awe-inspiring, deeply connected to nature, and intellectually stimulating. Astronomy for Mental Health is one of the projects to tap into this potential, showing that astronomy activities focused on mental well-being can successfully benefit mental health while also improving cognitive performance and social bonds. It has also set an example of how astronomy can collaborate with other disciplines to great results, the outcomes of this project potentially impacting other fields like psychology and humanitarian work.
Contact the project: Armine Patatanyan, email@example.com
Project URL: https://www.astro4dev.org/astronomy-mental-health/