It is one of the most remote places on Earth, but the physical hardships confronted by expeditioners to Antarctica are not the only challenges they face.
Months spent without sunlight, separation from loved ones and disrupted sleep patterns can take their toll on the mental health of visitors to the icy continent.
“It’s the isolation, [the] confined, extreme environment,” said Dr Jeff Ayton, the chief medical officer of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD).
“It’s even an analogue for space environment.”
Each year, up to 500 people travel to Australia’s four Antarctic bases.
But over the dark, cold winter months, only about 60 remain in total isolation.
“It can get tough — you’re in a small community of say 16 to 25 people,” Dr Ayton said.
“The most common mental health problem down south is actually sleep disturbance and circadian rhythms.”
The AAD has teamed with mental health charity SPEAK UP! Stay ChatTY to promote a positive message during Mental Health Week.
The AAD social club have given a Hägglunds snow vehicle a makeover before it leaves for Davis Station.
The messages on the vehicle include: “It’s OK to talk about mental health”, “We’ve got to raise awareness” and “It’s OK to not be OK”.
Charity founder Mitch McPherson said it was a fantastic way to spread an important message.
“I think having it travel around Antarctica every day and people seeing it will hopefully always encourage them to know that it’s a positive thing to have conversation,” he said.
For expeditioners, mental health support starts before they head south, including an extensive screening process with psychological testing conducted by the AAD.
“It’s not everyone who can work in Antarctica but even still we do get the occasional mental health issue down south, but they’re uncommon,” Dr Ayton said.
“We and other Antarctic nations have been touched by suicide in Antarctica.”
The message-laden Hägglunds will depart Hobart for Antarctica on the Aurora Australis later this month.