“Potterversity” Episode 37: “Magical Mental Health”
Unpack mental health in the wizarding world and how Harry Potter can serve as bibliotherapy for readers.
For insight into these topics, Katy and Emily talk to Nishi Ravi, a psychotherapist pursuing a PhD in counseling psychology at Marquette University. She recalls how reading Harry Potter as a preteen and teenager made her feel seen at a formative age – a common experience for many young readers.
Who deals well with trauma in the wizarding world, and who struggles? Although there is no singular definition of what constitutes trauma, Nishi generally thinks that people who can understand they’re not responsible for their trauma but that they are responsible for their healing tend to be able to manage it better. Neville seems to be a good example as someone who can maintain social relationships, use his trauma as a moral foundation, and learn to stand up for himself. The antithesis is Snape, who has a sense of purpose from his trauma but hasn’t found a way to cope and process, fails to forge interpersonal relationships, and projects his trauma onto others.
What about Harry? Although he shows resilience and strength, he is so constantly in danger, even at Hogwarts, that he rarely has opportunities to process his trauma, his conversation with Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix being an uncommon event. Still, he makes a choice when he arrives at Hogwarts to surround himself with people who are good for him instead of befriending Malfoy and joining Slytherin. His experience in detention with Umbridge could be a form of masochistic reparation for him as someone whose life is based on other people sacrificing themselves for him and who is so focused on the greater good that he does very little for his own self-interest.
Are adults in the wizarding world good models for positive mental health? McGonagall is the embodiment of consistency and stability amid chaos. Still, Hogwarts is not exactly conducive to students’ well-being. A glimpse into the Spell Damage ward at St. Mungo’s shows that treatment for severe psychological trauma is lacking, and exposure to this trauma in the form of the Cruciatus Curse and Dementors is common. In both the Muggle and wizarding worlds, unequal social structures create mental health challenges. Half-giants, elves, and Squibs are marginalized, which can cause emotional turmoil.
What can readers learn from reading Harry Potter? The deficiencies in wizarding society reflect our own and give us a glimpse of how to understand the world and eventually engage in real action as adults. The series provides a safe way to explore more serious realities, and although no work of literature can capture everything, it serves as a good starting point.
When Nishi’s clients worry that their depression or anxiety is just in their heads, she thinks of Dumbledore’s words: “Why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” That idea is one of many in the series that can help reduce existential loneliness.