Former Astronaut Scott Kelly vividly remembers the worst day he spent in space. On January 8th, 2011 his twin brother’s wife, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was shot outside a supermarket as Giffords was meeting with consituents. Six people were killed and Giffords, who was shot in the head, was in critically injured. “Despite this family tragedy I knew there was no way I was able to come home to be with my brother, my children and my family,” says Scott who is known for spending nearly a year in space. “And I had three months left to go in space.”
Former Astronaut Scott Kelly (Courtesy Scott Kelly)
While not every day in space was fraught with that kind of pain. Kelly, who has logged 520 days in space, which includes completing a mission aboard International Space Station for 340 days, experienced moments of isolation and longing for connection.
He remembers how he got through his first Christmas in space. In fact, his first flight was over Christmas in 1999 on the Space Shuttle Discovery. It was the day they released the Hubble Space Telescope after repairing it. "One of my crew mates French astronaut, Jean-François Clervoy, who we called "Billy Bob" broke out all his French food," recalls Kelly. "We turned the lights off on the flight deck of the space shuttle on the dark side of the earth. And I remember listening to Mozart and eating this gourmet, sort of first class airline French food. It was one of the most memorable Christmases I've had in space."
Kelly credits his rigorous NASA training for giving him tools to get through. And he finds those skills especially useful now in during this unprecedented time and dealing with quarantine. “What helped me both in space and now, during the pandemic, is knowing what I have control over and I don't have control over. It’s about putting time and energy on what you can control,” shares Kelly, whose twin brother Mark Kelly is also a former astronaut and was just elected to be a United States senator from Arizona.
This former astronaut has been working with the AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation to combat social isolation, which has become epic during the pandemic. The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report, a study conducted by AARP Foundation in collaboration with the United Health Foundation, finds that three quarters of Americans are feeling socially isolated at this time.
The report notes that many of those affected have not turned to anyone for help, perhaps because many don't have reliable social support networks. “We are in a public health crisis within a public health crisis,” says Kelly. “The public health crisis is the pandemic. And it is causing a public health crisis affecting people’s mental health and anxiety which is not a good.”
In an effort to help those affected, AARP Foundation recently expanded Connect2affect.org, which offers resources to address social isolation. They have an assessment that individuals can take to find out if they or a loved one are at risk for social isolation. The website shares guidance on how to strengthen social bonds. “The website will give you a lot of valuable information to try to help,” advises Kelly. “It’s normal to feel isolated, but you also don't have to be alone or lonely. There are ways to get help. And there are ways to get through this.”
Kelly shared his tips on dealing wtih isolation, especially during the holidays. These tips can help bring you cheer.
Know you are not alone. Recognize that it's okay to feel isolated. But you don't have to be lonely. Especially with the holidays. Know there is help available to you.
Get outside when you can and be in sunlight. NASA has found that the absence of sunlight and isolation affects our mental health, physical health and in particular our immune system.
Connect with people. Even though I was isolated on the space station, I never really felt alone. I had the ability, to connect with ours via telephone email and video conferences. That is similar here. People are socially isolated, but that doesn't mean they have to be alone.
Get professional help. According to the study only 11% of adults turn to a medical professional when feeling down or sad, and almost a third reported that they did not look to anyone for support.People go to the doctor for a physical problem, but they there is still a stigma around mental health treatment. You should not feel embarrassed about seeking mental health. At NASA, we didn't have a choice. Every two weeks, whether we liked it or not, we had to talk to a group of psychiatrists and psychologists, to discuss how we were coping and getting along with our crew mates, the relationships with our family, how we were sleeping. All those kinds of things. So find support services in your community that can help you.
Find a creative outlet or hobby. Writing in a journal was a pretty cathartic process for me. You can have a conversation with yourself about how you're feeling. I did that on the space stataion. I find it’s nice to have a record of what that experience was like for myself and my family and people in the future.