Back to Hogwarts: The Mental Health Lessons in “Harry Potter”
by Janina Scarlet, PhD
Have you ever been told that you are “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” that you need to “just calm down,” and “think positively?” If any of these statements have ever bothered you, you are not alone.
As humans, we are emotional beings. In fact, our emotions make us magical. That’s right – those very feelings that we are often taught to “brush off” and “just forget about” are actually the source of our greatest magical potential. Emotions make us care; they allow us to have access to our heart, to recognize what is most important to us.
From the very beginning of the series, we learn that suppressing a witch’s or wizard’s magical potential is likely to backfire. Despite all their efforts to keep Harry’s magic a secret from the world and from him, Harry’s magic is such a strong part of him that when he is provoked, his magical abilities are likely to show up anyway, such as when he accidentally magicked himself onto a school roof or when he made the glass disappear in a zoo.
Just like Harry’s magical abilities, our emotions, too, are not meant to be suppressed; they are meant to be explored and attended to. In fact, magic suppression can be extremely unhealthy, and even dangerous, as we learn from the Obscurus in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a dark destructive force that is created when a magical child is forced to suppress their magical abilities. On the other hand, with proper lessons, we can learn to manage our magical skills and understand how our emotions can be used to help us grow as magical beings.
Although the main focus of the Harry Potter series is about standing up to external villains, such as Voldemort and the Death Eaters, the series also shows us that we can learn to manage our internal monsters as well. For example, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner Azkaban, we learn about several monsters, such as Dementors and boggarts. Boggarts are terrifying shapeshifters that take the shape of whatever their observers fear most. Much like our own phobias and worst-case scenario-related thoughts, boggarts feed on terror and are defeated by laughter. If rather than running away from our biggest fears, we face them, or better yet, make them “riddikulus,” it can help change the way we perceive that monster, rendering them much less threatening.
Harry’s own boggart took the shape of a Dementor. Dementors are terrible creatures that suck the happiness out of anyone they come near. Their presence feels cold, numbing, and hopeless as if things will never ever be okay again. This is very much what many people with clinical depression (major depressive disorder) experience.
Although some people might experience depression as feelings of sadness, others may experience it as a heavy, daunting, numbing feeling. Like Dementors, depression attacks can sometimes happen “out of nowhere” and can affect people in different ways. Like Harry, people who already had previous traumatic experiences, such as a loss of a loved one, child abuse, alienation, or bullying, might sometimes be more susceptible to such Dementor attacks. However, connecting with a group of close friends, a meaningful memory, or an activity just might create a strong enough Patronus Charm to keep our own Dementors at bay, or at least make them more manageable. And of course, chocolate can help too.
The series as a whole reminds us that love is the oldest and most powerful source of magic, and that sentiment is true in our everyday lives. Spending time engaging in meaningful conversations or activities with people we love and care about has been shown to release oxytocin, a “magical” hormone, into our body. This hormone is involved in love, cuddling, trust, and social bonding, as well as improving our physical and psychological well-being. When released, oxytocin can help us feel less depressed, less anxious, and more motivated to help our friends and family. So perhaps our own emotions, our love for our friends and fellow Potterheads, might help us to obtain our own version of magic in real life.
Dr. Janina Scarlet is a clinical psychologist, a podcaster on Harry Potter Therapy, and the author of Therapy Quest, a revolutionary self-help book combining therapy with an interactive fantasy quest. For more information, go to www.superhero-therapy.com or follow @ShadowQuill. You can also hear her speak more about Harry Potter and mental health on Episode 10 of Beyond the Veil.