Fighting A Global Health Crisis: What Can James Bond Teach Us About Depression?

by Stefanie Glick,

with Jeff Greenberg, Ph.D. and Mike Remshard, Ph.D

In his bestselling book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, psychologist Dr. Terrance Real explains that problems we typically consider male – alcoholism, difficulty with intimacy, rage and workaholism – are often attempts to escape depression. And what’s more, this “covert” depression is often harder to diagnose (and treat) than the more obvious I-Can’t-Get-Out-of-Bed type of depression.

But who would have guessed that the famously charismatic film hero James Bond is among the millions of men (and women) suffering from depression? But if we look closely at the character of 007 through the lens of depression, it’s clear that Bond has pursued many of covert depression’s common “escape routes.” Like some people who suffer from persistent or chronic depression (clinically referred to as dysthymia), the legendary British agent has apparently tried to dull painful symptoms with “self-medicating” behaviors. In fact, when I asked Dr. Real how he would respond if Bond came to him as a patient seeking treatment, he replied: “I would say to him, let’s talk about the booze and women, and what you would feel if you stopped doing that.”

Even in the early films of the 60’s, below the glamorous surface of Sean Connery’s charm, Bond already had an eyebrow-raising penchant for too many martinis and one-night-stands. And in 2006’s Casino Royale, we saw a man who still avoids intimate relationships:

Solange: “You like married women, don’t you, James?

Bond: “It keeps things simple.”

In 1989’s License to Kill, we saw an angry rogue agent unable to control his temper:

Bond: “Get me out of these bloody things.”

Fallon: “No, commander. You’re a loose cannon on deck!”

And more directly, here’s the actor Daniel Craig in a 2012 Playboy interview: “Bond is quite a depressive character. When he’s not working, he’s at his worst. I can relate.”

Depression (and its co-conspirator addiction), left untreated, can have devastating effects throughout the lifespan. The most-recent director of Bond films Sam Mendez told reporters “the aging spy suffers from lassitude, boredom and depression.” And when I talked to the renowned “father” of cognitive therapy Dr. Aaron Beck about the character of Bond, he said: “In his later life, maybe James Bond is still showing a lot of bravado, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Because what depressed people do is they not only start thinking negatively, but they wash out all the positive meaning of what they do.”

Still, it’s difficult to reconcile these two faces of Bond: the expert operative dedicated to defending his country and the isolated man battling depression. But the reality is, for people who are chronically depressed, these two sides of Bond dramatically reflect the experience of their daily lives, and the vast gulf they feel between their public and private selves. In fact, for many women and men living with depression, their daily realities resemble the lives of spies. Trying to keep their depression under the radar, many feel as if they are living a double-life. Some even hide their “true identities” from those closest to them. In other words, their story is Bond’s story – and the story of countless high-functioning professionals and outstanding citizens who manage to fight off depression’s pain with extraordinary courage, tenacity, humor and style.

When it comes to depression, however, the prevailing stigma is that depressed people are weak. By showing that the notoriously tough and capable 007 struggles with depression, the character challenges the stereotypes surrounding depression, and a new kind of hero has unexpectedly emerged. Indeed, in employing the illustrious James Bond, I am advocating for what I call a Hero Model of Depression – a public educational model that emphasizes the unique strengths and accomplishments of people living with depression. Or, as psychologist John Rottenberg stated in Psychology Today, I aim to celebrate depressed people as “a resource who can teach us all about overcoming adversity.” In this sense, the Hero Model of Depression can not only challenge and enrich the public’s understanding of depression, but it can also help reduce the stigma of depression that prevents millions of people around the world from getting the care and support they desperately need.

In the 1962 film Dr. No, James Bond says to the infamous villain: “World domination…the same old dream,” which appears to be Depression’s alarming goal as well. The World Health Organization projects that by 2030, the amount of lost life and disability attributable to depression will be greater than that from war, cancer, stroke, and other major health conditions, and suicide rates have increased 60 percent worldwide, with one person in the world dying from suicide every 40 seconds. Thus, the Bond franchise’s decision to finally address the internationally revered character’s painful inner life couldn’t come at a better time, because we need to find ways to bring this difficult subject into the public discourse. Or, as Andrew Solomon, the Pulitzer Prize nominated author who writes and speaks about depression, told me: “I’m always interested in getting out the message of the treatability of depression to a larger audience, and if Bond is the way to do it, I’m engaged with that. I think at the moment, there’s a lot of highbrow conversation [about depression], and there are a lot of people who are not participating in that. Depression is a pervasive problem and it affects everyone, and the more people we can have informed about it, the better the world will be.”

By offering a more honest portrayal of the world-famous Bond’s evolving struggle with depression, I’m hoping that real-life mortals around the globe might find themselves inspired to be more open about their own experience with depression (because the more isolated a depressed person feels, the less likely he is to recover and the more likely he is to commit suicide). And if, as the British film scholar James Chapman suggested to me: “The figure of Bond and the meanings attached to him are constantly responding to and reflecting the changes in the wider culture,” then the latest version of James Bond offers us a glimmer of hope. Because regardless of how low Bond may go, it is good news for us all that our depressed hero with a license to kill has been granted, in short, a license to live.

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Stefanie Glick is a playwright, educator and founder of the License to Live Project, a public health program that is working to change the way depression is viewed, discussed and treated (www.licensetoliveproject.org). This article includes contributions by Michael Grais, Jeff Greenberg, Ph.D and Michael Remshard, Ph.D.

***The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and neither represent nor reflect the views of any other individual or entity. The idea for this site and its contents have not been prepared, endorsed, or licensed by, and is not affiliated with any individual or entity that has created, produced, or maintained any affiliation with the James Bond novels or films.

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