It'll only take a second or two. How often have we heard that said?

What can change your life in two seconds? A nod from someone to whom you've just proposed marriage; a newborn baby's cry; a nerve impulse from your head pulling your hand away from fire.

Star athlete Mark Tewksbury, Olympic medalist, author and mental health champion, reminded me (and 600 other people) of the power of two seconds the other day. Mark was speaking at the annual Silver Dinner fundraiser for the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation (CPRF) and the Mental Health Partnerships of Canada (MHPC), two charities that have just announced their alliance, to enable maximum impact, under the leadership of the Hon. Michael Kirby.

In his speech, Mark described his own challenges with the solitude and stigma of mental illness, his escape from the darkness - and, in the process, he told the story of the 1988 4x100 metres men's Olympic medley relay - and the power of two seconds. There were high hopes for the Canadian team at the Seoul Summer Olympics, and Mark himself had been held up as a new superstar. Yet the team suffered constant morale problems marked by infighting, self-absorption and lack of mutual support. Mark underwhelmed in his backstroke (5th) and the very next day was due to swim the relay.

The Canadian team had hoped, at best, to finish fifth in the men's medley relay, with the Americans and the Soviets being heavy favourites. Before the race, fellow teammate Victor Davis nudged all his Canadian teammates to buck up, and he took Mark aside two hours before the race to tell him, bluntly, about the importance of working with his team, not against it. At race-time, Mark, Victor, and Tom Ponting all improved slightly on how they'd performed during earlier competitions - but Sandy Goss did something remarkable. He beat his personal best in the last leg of the race by almost two seconds (1.7), something it would take an Olympian swimmer, on average, seven years to do.

To everyone's surprise, the Canadian team snatched the silver, beating the heavily favoured Soviets. (The Americans cleaned up in all the men's relays that year).

The Power of the Nudge

In sport, and in mental health, a gentle nudge can make an enormous difference. Authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein are widely credited for making this point in their groundbreaking "Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness".

In the animal kingdom, nudging is best illustrated by the guidance that mother elephants give to their young. They prod them gently. A nudge is a suggestion rather than an order. It only takes a second, maybe two. Can mental health benefit from nudging?

It takes a second for someone to suffer a deadly impulse to throw himself over a bridge when life seems painful and futile. A nudge that counters the impulse to jump might be the sight of reinforcements around the bridge that make it harder to climb over and dive off. Of course it takes longer than two seconds to construct but it can stop the deconstructive, often momentary, impulse.

It takes two seconds to gulp that drink that's the beginning of the end, the end of abstinence and the descent into darkness once again. The nudge is the quick hand placed over the drink, the kind shake of the head, the interference by a beloved other.

On the other side of the nudge is the punch. It takes a second to scream invective when feelings get hurt. Or to dash off an angry email. The nudge is the count-to-ten rule, learned in childhood. The count takes two seconds, enough to cool down. Put it off till tomorrow. Clear your head.

It takes two seconds of panic to cancel an invitation, perhaps an important one. Panic can be overwhelming. Ever hear of the brown bag trick? Carry a small brown paper bag in your pocket. When panic strikes, hold it over your mouth and nose and breathe for two seconds.  It stops the hyperventilation that keeps the panic going. The CO2 will calm your panic and you can think again.

It takes two seconds to cut yourself for the sheer relief of feeling something when the feeling of not being there sweeps over you. You reach out for the razor blade and then you remember the nudge your nurse or doctor showed you. An elastic band around your wrist, and you snap it. It stings for two seconds. You exist. No need to do any cutting.

Thank you Mark

It takes two seconds to say "thank you" to someone - in an email or a tweet on Twitter™. I think that expressing gratitude and empathy, the opposite of what some of the 40+ crowd put down to the pomposity of youth, are the twin attributes of Twitter™ - the mega-popular micro-blogging tool that lets people write 140 character messages to the world.

The simple emoticon ;) designating happiness on Twitter™ is often used to convey a positive nudge to someone faraway, to a friend or stranger. Listening on Twitter™ to a two-second cry for help has even prevented suicide. After several Twitter™ users contacted the police following one suicide threat in Silicon Valley, Calif., police found the woman uninjured. Stories like this have prompted some to consider whether two-second tweets are today's new lifeline.

Unexpectedly, I bumped into Mark at the exercise gym two days after his powerful talk. We talked about the evolving science of mental health; the rising energy in the Canadian mental health awareness movement (now stronger than ever thanks to the alliance of the CPRF and the MHPC); and the power of story in public speaking. Mark is an excellent public speaker, though he never imagined he'd become one. As he was leaving, he turned to me and said: "it's great to see you working out hard like that: awesome." His remark was probably instinctive. Coming from an Olympian, it was a rock-solid nudge.

I never worked out so hard in my life as I did that day.

About the Author

Neil Seeman is a writer, and Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College at the University of Toronto.