The Patronus Charm: An Effective Counter to Depression?
By now it is common knowledge that J.K. Rowling created Dementors as a metaphor for depression. The Dementor’s ability to suck all the happiness out of people and leave them cold and hopeless makes this an apt comparison. If Dementors represent depression, however, at first glance, the Patronus Charm seems like a weak form of fighting it. Just think of a happy memory and then your depression will go away? That seems a bit too easy.
Yet modern psychology suggests that thinking of a happy memory when depressed is not as easy as it sounds. Psychologists have found a phenomenon called mood-dependent memory, where people who are in a good or a bad mood are more likely to remember events that occurred when they were in that same mood (Forgas & Eich, 2013). For people who are depressed, this can lead to a downward spiral, where being sad means that you only remember other times in your life when you were also sad, and you soon come to believe that your whole life is made up of sad moments.
Casting a Patronus is not just about coming up with happy memories in general, however; it is about thinking of a specific happy memory. This may also be difficult for people with depression. When people are depressed, they tend to look at their past in generalized terms. They may think things like, “Nothing has ever gone right for me,” or “No one has ever cared about me.” They do not try to think of specific events that provide evidence for this claim; it is simply a generalized belief (Schacter, 2001). For this reason, casting a Patronus Charm is doubly hard for someone whose mind is influenced by the Dementor’s powers. It involves thinking of a specific but also very happy memory. It truly is an impressive achievement that takes great strength of character.
This still leaves the question, however, of whether thinking of a single happy memory is actually enough to lift depression. The answer is probably no, both in the real world and the wizarding world. Harry tries very hard in Lupin’s office to think of happy memories, but even so, he cannot create a true Patronus. He is only successful when he resists the lure of dwelling in his traumatic past and realizes that no father or other parent figure is going to save him. This inner strength is what allows him to cast a Patronus with the power to overcome hundreds of Dementors. Throughout the series, we see that most of the times when Harry casts a Patronus, he’s not thinking of specific memories but rather of the people he loves, like Ron and Hermione. The instruction to think of specific happy memories is most likely a starting point, a way to train yourself in breaking through the Dementor’s spell in order to access the love and positive emotions within you.
Harry is particularly good at casting a Patronus, potentially because he has had so much practice in intentionally thinking of happy memories. After a life with the Dursleys, happy memories are hard to come by, which is why Harry is initially so affected by the Dementors. Yet Harry has also gained more resilience than his friends after many years of finding hope in hopeless situations. Despite the fact that Hermione’s negative memories are not quite as bad as Harry’s, she finds it much more difficult to produce a Patronus when faced with Dementors (PoA 20). This could be because Hermione, top of every class, has always relied on external validation to secure her self-image. Unlike Harry, she has not yet had practice with protecting her ego against continual assault. This practice may be why Harry, despite having the strongest reaction to the Dementors’ power, is also best equipped to fight them when he gets the chance.
Forgas, J. P., and E. Eich. “Affective influences on cognition: Mood congruence, mood dependence, and mood effects on processing strategies.” Handbook of psychology: Experimental psychology, edited by A. F. Healy et al., 2nd ed., vol. 4, John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2013, pp. 61–82.