The enduring popularity of the Harry Potter series, along with the the recent prequels of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the upcoming Crimes of Grindelwald, have baffled those who look upon them as simple children’s books, movies, and general nerd-fandom. But to those of us who’ve read the books and journeyed with the orphan “Boy Who Lived”, the wizarding world reflects struggles found in the real world and gives us a Marauder’s Map to navigate them. Not only are macro-level themes of racial conflicts, political unrest, and righteous social activism skillfully woven into the background of the hero’s quest, but aspects of mental health and mental illness are addressed with stunning symbology.
For those reading this with limited exposure to this world, I will do my best to provide a basic explanation of the aspects of the books and movies required to understand the concepts presented here. Hopefully I can do this without boring those of us who have long since earned “Outstandings” on our N.E.W.Ts (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Test – basically the S.A.T.’s of Hogwarts). Hence, it probably goes without saying, but there are likely to be spoilers ahead.
Mental Illness and the Wizarding World, Like the Muggle (non-wizard) world, mental illness in the wizarding world has a mixture of stigma and support. St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries is the healthcare center where Healers treat magical ailments. Patients with severe mental impairments are cared for permanently and reside in locked units for their safety. Here, severe mental illness is presented as the long-term consequence of an illegal attack from another or a botched attempt at magic. There are no references to inherent maladies from birth, with the exception of being born a Squib (a child of wizard lineage with no magic abilities). Patients within the locked ward are given competent and compassionate care, however rarely have visitors. With a few exceptions, they are portrayed as forgotten by their loved ones and the community. This pitiful state is all-too-often echoed in our own long-term residential facilities.
Boggarts and Anxiety Disorders
Less severe forms of mental illness are presented as a typical occurrence within the wizarding world. Wizards manage these minor ailments with magic the same way a Muggle might treat weeds with a Home Depot herbicide. One example of this is Harry’s adventure with the Boggart – a physical manifestation of anxiety-spectrum disorders. A Boggart is a creature which inhabits confined spaces and, when encountering a witch or wizard, takes the form of whatever will frighten them most. They usually take the form of a phobia (such as a giant spider, a venomous snake, etc.) or a personal insecurity (as in the case of Hermione Granger or perfectionistic Ravenclaws like myself, it may portray a failing report card). Some people are more susceptible to Boggarts if they are fearful by nature. These fears are just as detectable to Muggles who tend to only catch a glimpse, but fully sense their foreboding and overwhelming presence. For a witch or wizard who has multiple, equally terrifying fears, the Boggart will shift from one form to another – cycling through their fears until the person is paralyzed to the point that they cannot complete the task they set out to do. This cycling brings to mind clients of mine struggling with generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder and the rapidly changing nature of their fears. GAD and OCD are chronic issues which can lessen with intervention and coping strategies, but they are rarely “cured”. Likewise, Boggarts are never fully destroyed, but they can be managed. Once a wizard learns how to identify Boggarts and the proper spells to use against them, a Boggart becomes powerless and vanishes. The Boggarts never really go away (like other household pests, there’s always more where that came from), but wizards learn to hold their own against them.
The spell used to combat a Boggart is called Riddikulus. As the name implies, the Riddikulus spell uses humor to fight fear. By envisioning an amusing image related to the form a Boggart takes, the Boggart assumes this humorous form and elicits laughter from the spellcaster. Laughter is the key to overcoming a Boggart, and this strategy is a handy approach to fear in our world as well. Discussing the nature of our fears and working through the possibility vs. probability of them actually occurring gives us power to stop, breathe, relax, and laugh at our own catastrophic thinking. This framework is similar to a therapeutic approach known as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) – a precursor to the widely used Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In REBT, feelings are the result of what we believe about an adverse event, not necessarily the event itself. By changing the beliefs associated to the activating event, we change our feelings. The Boggart takes the form of fear (adverse event), we see the Boggart as a valid threat (belief), and thus are scared (consequence). However, the Riddikulus charm changes that belief. Now, we recognize the Boggart for what it is and create something humorous in its place, resulting in laughter instead of fear.
Power In Numbers
Another tool to dispel a Boggart/anxiety is engaging in community and social interactions with others. When faced with two individuals with two different fears, a Boggart gets confused and ends up splicing itself. This turns the Boggart into a comical mashup of the two wizards’ fears. In the same way, community and social interactions in the Muggle world help to alleviate anxiety (except social anxiety, of course) by providing a distraction to the cycle of thoughts when one is alone. Groups also provide sound feedback about the rationality (or lack thereof) of our anxious thoughts.
Dementors and Depression
Anxiety is not the only mental illness represented in the wizarding world. It has been widely documented that J.K. Rowling crafted the non-beings called Dementors after her own experiences with major depressive disorder. Dementors (appropriately a portmanteau of demented and tormentors) are blind, dark, faceless creatures with hooded cloaks and bodies that resemble cold, decaying corpses. They feed upon positive feelings and drain the surrounding area of hope of happiness, turning everything cold and dark. They are the physical embodiment of despair and hopelessness. Dementors do not discriminate – they have the capacity to impact anyone who is unfortunate to encounter them. However, they do affect those with a trauma history more significantly than others. Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and one of Harry’s mentors, Remus Lupin states:
“The dementors affect [Harry] worse than others because there are horrors in [his] past that others don’t have.” – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Like Harry, those afflicted with a traumatic past are often more susceptible to depression in our world. So dreadful are the Dementors that they were given the task to guard Azkaban – the wizarding world’s equivalent of Alcatraz. Here the Dementors feast upon the inmates’ feelings and force them to relive their worst memories, leaving them to the terrible fate of being constantly confined to a negative consciousness. This is the picture of major depression that J.K. Rowling conveyed – an all-consuming and seemingly endless existence void of hope.
Eat Chocolate and Expecto Patronum
To combat these hope-sucking entities, a temporary measure is eating a bit of chocolate. Dark chocolate has been shown to increase serotonin and relax blood vessels within the cardiovascular system. In the wizarding world, chocolate provides a mood boost that gets a wizard by until they learn Expecto Patronum. This spell, in conjunction with a strong, happy memory, conjures a bright protective light the drives away Dementors. This force, when in its full corporal form, takes the shape of an animal specific to the spellcaster. This animal is said to “represent that which is hidden, unknown but necessary within the personality” (Patronus Charm, Pottermore.com). An individual’s Patronus can change when a person undergoes a significant life change such as falling in love; these happy changes often strengthen the spell, making a patronus even more powerful.
(My Patronus, a Black Mamba snake, seems more appropriate for my self-described Slytherin husband. Meanwhile, his Patronus – a Nebelung cat – is basically my spirit animal. You can find out your Patronus here.) Casting a patronus is not easy. In fact, it is considered advanced magic in Harry’s world. The spell requires mastering mindful concentration and focused practice before running into a Dementor. The same can be said for developing skills to combat clinical depression. When in the depths of depression, it is extremely challenging to pull ourselves out. Preparing various coping skills in advance and practicing them is crucial to overcoming depressive episodes. If we wait until we need a coping skill to learn one, we’re less likely to find the strength to implement it. When I work with clients on the uplift after a bout of depression, I encourage them to write a letter to their future depressed selves, seal it, and give it to a trusted person. If these clients exhibit symptoms of another depressive episode, their loved one can give them this personalized letter. Included in the letter are the coping skills, encouragement, and reminder of positive things in their life from the most trusted source possible – themselves in a healthy frame of mind. The same strength is drawn in the Patronus charm. Expecto Patronum translates to “I await a protector”; however, the protector wizards are awaiting is (and always has been) themselves. They draw upon their prior preparation, self-confidence, self-esteem, and “pure, protective magical concentration of happiness and hope” (Pottermore.com) to produce the protection they need.
The Kiss Worse than Death
A Dementor’s final attack is known to as the “Dementor’s Kiss”. This is when the Dementor sucks out the soul of its victim, leaving them a hollow, soulless shell of mere existence. The kiss is described as a tragic fate “worse than death”. This is the mindset that consumes those struggling with depression. So hopeless is their perceived situation that they contemplate suicide just to escape their current state. Suicide in the wizarding world is scantily addressed. It happens, but it is regulated to occurrences in folklore (as in the case of Cadmus Peverell, whose desire to reunite with a deceased loved one creates the second Deathly Hollow) and in ancient wizarding history (as the murder-suicide of the Bloody Baron and Helena Ravenclaw). Suicides in the wizarding world are either not occurring, or more likely, not acknowledged in canonical sources. It seems that the absence of suicide in this world echoes the stigma and suppression of such acts in our world.
The Obscurus and Suppression
The theme of suppression is common throughout the wizarding world. Whether it is the nefarious behavior of power-hungry Dolores Umbridge, or the dangerous incompetence of Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, suppression is a tool that only results in rebellion and potential destruction. For Umbridge, it results in the epic fireworks display during exams by the mischievous Weasley twins. For Fudge, it results in the entire collapse of his cabinet and coup d’état of the Ministry of Magic. But the impact of cultural suppression is shown most dramatically with the concept of Obscurials and their resulting parasitic force known as the Obscurus. An Obscurial is a young witch or wizard who, in order to avoid persecution by Muggles for their magical status, tries to withhold, deny, and restrain their abilities. When the stress of trying to suppress their true nature becomes unbearable, they reach their breaking point and an Obscurus is formed. According to J.K. Rowling, very specific conditions must be met to create an Obscurus: 1) trauma associated with the use of magic (often physical or psychological abuse from Muggles), 2) internalized hatred of one’s own magic, and 3) a conscious attempt to suppress magical abilities. When these are met, an Obscurus bursts forth, attacks, and destroys structures and objects near the obscurial host. After attacking, the Obscurus immediately vanishes. While the Obscurus targets people that are the source of distress experienced by their hosts, the host can be calmed by a trusted person. The dual tragedy of the Obscurial/Obscurus relationship is that A) it is often fatal to the child host and B) it is completely preventable if only society and those closest to the young witch/wizard accepted their magical abilities. An Obscurus will not develop when a child is provided the opportunity to understand, embrace, and appreciate their magical proclivities. It is only when they are judged, shamed, and criticized for something they have no control over that this destructive force brews. The real world counterpart to this is seen in the struggles of LGBTQIA+ youth. Just like an Obscurial, LGBTQIA+ face suppression from of a portion of society that does not accept them for who they are and attempts to force them to hide their true nature. Many do not survive this suppression. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 10-24, and those youths and young adults who have highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide (thetrevorproject.org). To counter this, many organizations have grown to support LGBTQIA+ youth by offering acceptance and a welcoming environment – just like Hogwarts did for Harry Potter.
Love (and Pensieves) is all you need.
Finding genuine support and developing coping skills are crucial aspects to maintaining mental wellness. The power of relationships is at the heart of the Harry Potter saga, for it is what fosters the ability to overcome the dark forces that oppose us. Whether those relationships are familial, friendship, or intimate, they provide the strongest magic there is – love. Harry could not have achieved victory on his own; he needed the community support of those who believed in him and helped him along the way. From the sacrificial love of his mother to his own sacrifice for his friends, love created the potential for victory. Every person needs to define their social support system to help them through the trials and tribulations that each of us is destined to face. While I admittedly may be biased due to my profession as a counselor, I firmly believe in the benefits of maintaining a therapeutic relationship as part of that support system. Therapists are like the Pensieve – a container to hold memories which provides the opportunity for deep introspection of past events. This is beneficial because one is able to step out of their own experience and view it from a objective perspective. While a counselor cannot use Obliviate to make one forget the past, they can help to provide new insights to reframe it so that it is less likely to negatively impact their daily lives.
Therapists Are Like Pensieves, But Better
One benefit of the real world is that while a Pensieve has no protection from an invasion of privacy from a third-party, therapists have ethical and legal ‘enchantments’ to protect the privacy of their clients – even after death. Another benefit of the real-world Pensieve is that we are not as rare or difficult to locate.There are many therapists with different approaches, backgrounds, and theoretical orientations to accommodate any witch, wizard, or Muggle. Sometimes it might take you meeting with a few different therapists to find the one that fits your personality. The wand may choose the wizard, but the client chooses the therapist – when the right one is found, you’ll know.
Once you have that therapeutic relationship established, that’s when the magic of therapy can begin. Much like having to attend Charms, Transfiguration, or Care of Magical Creatures at Hogwarts, the skills needed to achieve mental health goals require practice, concentration, and a good ‘professor’. They do not come easily and rarely develop without some discomfort, but the end result is worth the effort.
Find your Quidditch
Finally, what comparison would be complete if the importance of Quidditch (a broomstick-based aerial mesh between rugby and basketball) were not included? Quidditch is Harry Potter’s escape from the stresses that he faces. When on the Quidditch pitch, he feels alive, passionate, focused, and determined. It rejuvenates him and provides him with a sense of accomplishment and joy. Everyone should have a Quidditch equivalent, although it need not be as dangerous or complicated. Whether it is sports, music, art, or theatre, find that activity that makes your soul excited while engaged and content when completed. If an activity does not spring to mind like Peeves after first-years, try a few different hobbies until you find the one that sticks. When that happens, seal it in your schedule. Don’t fall into the Devil’s Snare of not having enough time – you must make time to relax to maintain mental wellness. The wizarding world provides a reflection of struggles we face in our world and also a guide on how to overcome them. We may not have wands, potions, or mystical creatures to aid us, but we do have resources available if we are courageous, cunning, and wise to seek them out. If we do this with loyal support, we’ll be well on our way towards mental wellness.
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