You all know how it goes. A crew of intrepid space travelers sets out on an easy cargo mission, but before long the isolation chafes, and the crew's careful equilibrium unravels with devastating consequences. If only HAL 9000, Mother, or the Apollo Guidance Computer had been equipped to offer psychiatric help to its human companions, NASA thought — and that's why they poured four years and 1.74 million dollars into the development of computer therapy for its astronauts. The resulting software, which begins clinical trials next month, looks like all of the educational programs you avoided in favor of The Oregon Trail.Researchers from the Harvard and Dartmouth Medical Schools spearheaded the project, consulting with 29 current and former astronauts to develop what they call the Virtual Space Station. The central concept is "problem-solving treatment": By answering the VSS's questions about their mental problems, astronauts can help the program figure out ways to direct their own care.


A Harvard Medical School press release offers further details:

The first step of the process is to make a problem list and select a problem on which to work. The second and third steps are setting goals and brainstorming ways to reach them. The final two steps are assessing the pros and cons of possible solutions and making an action plan to implement them. The program also helps users plan and schedule enjoyable activities, which people who have depression often stop doing. Additionally, the program provides preventative and educational information on depression.

It sounds like a fairly comprehensive treatment, especially when you consider that NASA's astronaut screening process will almost certainly leave out any candidate with a history of serious clinical depression. But capable therapists do far more than just writing down a patient's answers on a sheet of paper and matching them to a pre-existing list of symptoms; they're trained to pick up on the subtler details of human interaction, and to make observations of a variety of different factors. A depressed person's distorted thinking patterns might lead her to believe that she is a complete failure at her job after she makes one inconsequential mistake — and the only thing her computer therapist will understand about her situation is what she types into the screen. A scripted "oh, don't feel bad, you're great" from an application on her laptop won't carry the same weight as the reassurance of a doctor who's been seeing her for months, and who can point out the distortion of her thinking with independent observations. Still, the Virtual Space Station is certainly better than no support at all, and clinical trials will offer much more information on the benefits and applications of the software. A foolproof solution might be to send up a qualified therapist with expertise in aviation psychology. But then, who knows what the effects of long-term isolation on the ISS might do to that therapist? Thanks to tipster Heather! Depressed astronauts to find high-tech comfort [CNN] Virtual Space Station screen capture from the New Scientist.

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