How Spy Movies Can Help Us Tackle Mental Health

Do you remember when celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself almost two years ago? If your Facebook and Instagram feeds were anything like mine, countless friends posted updates that basically said: If you ever want to talk, I am here for you, any time of the day.

It was an admirable sentiment. If someone as successful and famous as Anthony Bourdain could take his own life, it highlighted just how susceptible any of us can be when it comes to mental health.

But that night, as I saw status update after status update from friends declaring that they were there to listen, I wanted to speak up. I wanted to tell them that perhaps there was a better way to handle this situation. A new technique we could all implement. But I didn’t have the words required to effectively communicate it. But now I do.

I think we can all learn from spy movies.

In the movie Bourne Supremacy, there is a scene where a CIA agent gets a call from her bosses while Jason Bourne is standing next to her. She is asked to respond to an “ID Challenge” for the code Sparrow. On the screen we see that if she is under duress, her response would be Ruby. And if she was safe, she’d reply, “Everest”.

It’s a clear way to notify the CIA that you are in trouble without letting others around you know.

That’s what we all need.

There are many ways to tackle mental health. In a macro sense, you can fight to ensure that governments enact laws and institutions implement changes to radically improve the medical infrastructure in our country. If you are in college or at work, you can push for greater reforms such as making counselling more affordable. But if you as an individual want to take a big leap when it comes to improving how you and your friends tackle mental health…learn from the spy movie above.

Imagine that you are alone at home. You are extremely depressed. You desperately want to talk to your best friend; the thoughts in your mind are scaring you. You need to reach out. So you pick up your phone and you call that person.

What if the best friend is at a party? Or at work? When they pick up and say, “Hey buddy, what’s up?”, what will you say that will capture how you feel in the most effective way possible?

“Hey…er…I – uh, I wanted to talk to you. I’m not feeling so good.”

How do you think your best friend would respond? Sure, chances are they’ll drop what they’re doing and press you to pour out your thoughts. But what if they don’t sense the urgency in your voice? What if you are not expressive enough about your pain? Isn’t it possible that they’ll ask you to come by their house in the evening to catch up? Haven’t your best friends ever rescheduled because they are busy?

And when they ask you, “You sure this can wait till later, yeah?”, will you be able to shake your head and stress that you are in a life or death situation? Or will you instead feel embarrassed, ashamed or nervous and instead lie and chuckle and reassure them that it can wait.

What if it can’t?

There’s a reason why people use codes. Pilots who are falling out of the sky don’t have the time to compose their words. They cannot say, “Er, so if anyone’s listening, eh – my plane has been shot and I’m falling, please this is an emergency.” Instead they cry out, “May Day, May Day, May Day!”

Those two words are enough to make any radio operator sit up.

It’s the same for the police and for the surgeon. Then why can’t it be for you and me as well?

If you ate a whole bag of chips, felt bad about it and then called your best friend to complain, you’d say, “I feel like shit, man!”

If you dropped and broke your expensive phone and told your friend about it, you’d say, “I feel like crying, bro!”

If you spent a week feeling extremely depressed, wondering how and why you should even continue living and then wanted to talk to your best friend about it, what would you say? What words would you choose? Do you feel like shit or do you feel like crying…or do you feel something that’s far deeper than can be said in just a few words, most of which are overused on a daily basis?

What we as a society most require when it comes to tackling mental health problems, is effective communication. How to ensure that the person who is suffering can express their suffering to their loved ones without misinterpretation, delay or censorship.

Misinterpretation is when you mutter that you don’t see the point of life, and your friend replies, “Yeah man, life is so weird and crazy right? It almost feels like we’re in a simulation. Oh, you heard what Elon Musk said on Joe Rogan’s podcast? Dude, you have to check it out…”

Delay is when you manage to tell your friend that you need to talk, and they say, “Cool, let me just finish shopping with my parents, and then I’ll pick you up in two hours’ time. See ya!”

And most tricky of all is censorship, where you start telling how you feel and then begin hiding or modifying thoughts because you got cold feet. You saw the raised eyebrows and wide eyes and decided it was a bad idea. You were just about to expose the problem but quickly cover it up again.

But if you established a code with your closest friends, a simple word or phrase that was an S.O.S. call, all three of these problems could be bypassed. You’d be able to utter the words into a phone even if the person on the other end of the line was in the middle of a party or a wedding or an important business meeting. You’d be able to text it without having to use any emojis, none of which would have done any justice to the tormented feelings you’d been harbouring. You’d be able to utter it when in public, without anyone else understanding what you mean and feigning sympathy at your ‘mental condition’ while salivating at the opportunity to ponder about what you were thinking and doing.

When your closest friends hear or read those words, they’ll know what to do. They’ll know to drop everything and rush to your aid. Because you are metaphorically, if not literally, standing at the end of a ledge, peering down, wishing you didn’t have to jump but feeling like you do. They’ll know to come and be by your side. To listen and to talk until the dark clouds in your mind begin to dissipate and you step back to safety.

If this makes sense, then perhaps share this article with your loved ones and more importantly, have a discussion about it. Not just about the abstract concept of mental health and suicides, but about you as a person. It won’t be the lightest of conversations, but it might end up being the most important of them all.

Tell your closest friends that if ever you are in a desperate situation, you will call upon them with a special code. Let them know you’ll flash a bat signal when you want them to rush to your aid and rescue you from the darkness. 

Then reflect on your past.

Think if you’ve ever required such a code. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you desperately needed someone’s help but were too afraid, too busy or too sad to ask for it. If you are reading this, that means you, fortunately, escaped that grim situation. But moving forward, it’ll be better to ensure that you have that safety net in place, right?

Author’s note: This article was written in late May. At the time, I wanted to cite the suicide of Robin Williams or Anthony Bourdain. And by the time this was ready for publication, actor Sushant Singh Rajput passed away as well. If this article had remained in the drafts folder, I’m sure it would be updated over and over again…

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