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Dr. Janina Scarlett on using Harry Potter and pop culture in therapy

Contributed by
May 23, 2018

The Harry Potter franchise has fascinated fans since the first book was released in 1997. In books and movies alike, the series has helped a number of kids and adults relate to what is going on in their lives.

I recently spoke to Dr. Janina Scarlett, a licensed clinical psychologist, a scientist and the author of Harry Potter Therapy: An Unauthorized Self-Help Book from the Restricted Section. Scarlett is also the author of Superhero Therapy: Mindfulness Skills to Help Teens and Young Adults Deal with Anxiety, Depression and Trauma, and Therapy Quest, which is currently out in Europe. (Full disclosure: Dr. Scarlett and I are also chapter co-authors for the PsychGeeks series of books, including Star Wars Psychology. We’ve done a number of convention panels together, and her stories of how she uses pop culture in therapy are amazing.)

In our interview, Dr. Scarlett tells SYFY FANGRRLS about the reason she developed Superhero Therapy, which she lectures on, and why Harry Potter’s world works so well as a therapy technique.

What was the thing that got you started connecting pop culture to therapy?

I’ve always been really interested in stories. I grew up in Ukraine, and as a little child, when I was 3 years old, my family and I were exposed to Chernobyl radiation. As a result of that, I spent a long time in the hospital, not being able to do much except for reading fairy tales and fantasy books. I became enamored with characters who didn’t let their traumas hold them back. And when I came to the United States, I learned about the X-Men. These were, of course, Marvel superheroes who had some kind of genetic mutation. Many of them had radiation exposure as well, and had used their adversity to help other people. For me, these were superheroes that I looked up to, and these the the superheroes that helped me recover from my own trauma and my own adversity and my own difficulty. So when I started working with patients years later after receiving my doctoral degree, and working with patients, I started incorporating stories with my patients. 

It started like an accident, when I started seeing that more and more of my clients were identifying with superheroes, particularly Marines that I was working with, were really excited about talking about Superman or Batman or The Walking Dead. These individuals had a hard time talking about their own emotions or experiences but had no problem and no difficulty talking about the emotional experiences of their favorite characters. So through that we started drawing parallels with their own struggles, their own trauma history, and through the eyes of their favorite hero recovered from their own traumatic experience. And from there, Superhero Therapy just sort of blew up. I stared presenting on this and I was asked to give talks and go to conferences. And I thought I would write a book to make mental health more attainable, acceptable, fun. So that’s where “Superhero Therapy” was born, and the rest of the book followed. 

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Can you give an example of how this has worked in therapy?

Sure! With a lot of my clients, it starts in the initial session after learning about what my particular struggle my client was dealing with, we would then talk about their particular interested and passions. Some clients really related to sports, for example, but some really relate to pop culture, for example Harry Potter, or Supernatural or Walking Dead.

One of my clients, for a panic disorder and a driving phobia, and had told me in the first session that she was a big Harry Potter fan and had really identified with Ron Weasley, who is Harry’s best friend in the series and has struggled with what is called arachnophobia, which is the fear of spiders. And in the Harry Potter books, Ron has to be able to face his phobia in order to help his friends. So through this connection, my client realized that she, like Ron, will also have to start facing her fears. We talked about the way Ron did that. In the book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Ron had to learn to make his phobia ridiculous. He had to learn to see the image of a gigantic spider—actually a shapeshifter who take the form of a gigantic spider—and he has to turn this shapeshifter into something silly, something ridiculous. In this case, it was a spider on roller skates. And for Ron, this is what helped him overcome his phobia. It helped him to see that actually, the damage of the spider is not as dangerous as he once thought. 

So my client ended up doing the same thing. We ended up doing something called an exposure, which means facing your biggest fear, which is what Ron did in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class. So my client showed up to her session wearing her Gryffindor scarf, and she got behind the wheel, and I asked her how she felt and she felt really scared, but she was ready to embrace her inner Ron, and that she was ready to face this challenge like the Gryffindor she is. She turned on the ignition and we went around the block, and we circled around a couple of blocks, we went a little further. After about four or five sessions she was ready to go on the freeway. Now she’s able to drive freely. It was her connection with her favorite Harry Potter character that gave her the courage to face what seemed to her like an impossible task.

What do you think is the reason we connect to fictional characters the way we do? I mean, I cried like a baby over Dumbledore.

I think that when we connect with characters, we feel like we can trust them. It might seem odd, but to some degree, fantasy or fictional stories represent reality. I think in real life, we tend to be dishonest with other people, we tell people we’re find when we’re not fine. We tend to subdue, suppress and hide our emotions, and deny our feelings, Whereas with a fictional character who might be going through something that we’ve gone through, we’re able to recognize ourself in that character. We might be able to understand our struggle. And seeing the particular struggle through a fictional character’s eyes, we might have better understanding of our own. When that happens, we form this almost family-like [parasocial] relationship that is kind of a one-sided relationship with a fictional character where it feels like we know them. We grow to love them, and so, of course, if something happens to them, if they’re hurt or if they die, we might feel devastated. And at the same time, these characters might be the very thing that can get us through our own difficult experience and can inspire hope when we’re struggling with our own experience.

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What is it about Harry Potter specifically that grabbed you? Not that I don’t get it. Proud Ravenclaw here.

For me, Harry Potter is my favorite fandom. And the reason why is because, in my opinion, J.K. Rowling, the author of the series, did an incredible job of creating strong character backgrounds and stories demonstrating when mental health and mental illness can look like. 

On one of the panels we did together, you’d spoken about a study about Harry Potter and compassion. Can you share that with us?

Sure. In 2015, a group of Italian researchers released a paper on a couple of studies that they ran with high school and college students where several of the students where they read a passage where one of Harry’s friends, Hermione Granger, had experienced bullying. The other half of the students read a neutral passage. So the students that read a passage that depicted Hermione struggling with bullying and being picked on for being different, for being born to non-magical parents, the students that read that passage actually demonstrated more empathy and acceptance of stigmatized individuals such as the LGBT, the homeless population and immigrants as compared to students who read the neutral passage. So what it suggests is that, when we connect with characters and when we’re able to see stigmatization of certain characters and bullying of those characters, we might be able to have a better understanding of how inappropriate that behavior is. We might therefore be more empathic towards people who are going through that in real life.

There was another study done some time after that where researchers had participants read passages of Harry Potter while in an MRI scan. What they found is that when people were reading about Hermione or other people being bullied, compassion centers of their brain were lit up, suggesting that not only do people experience empathy, but their neurological experience was that of compassion toward these characters, similarly to what would happen if they witnessed these characters in real life.

With this and with Superhero Therapy, give us a look at how they work.

So for books like Superhero Therapy and Harry Potter Therapy, they draw examples from different fictional characters or original characters to demonstrate how a particular person might struggle with depression or anxiety, or PTSD, and also teaching the reader how to incorporate evidence-based techniques to help themselves when they’re struggling with this. For example, when Harry goes through a severe depression when he’s experiencing a Dementor attack, what really helped him is connecting with a memory of his parents or a memory of his friends. That is what allows him to cast a powerful Patronus charm, but also to have enough strength to fight for his life and protect the people he cares about.

What we know in real life, when we’re struggling with depression and we have a sense of purpose, and a sense of connection, our body release a chemical called oxytocin that can allow us to, at least temporarily, experience a relief from depression, as well as to allow us to find meaning and allow us to, therefore, fight for what we believe in. So I think the stronger our sense of connection is in real life, the easier it will be for us to manage our own depression when it arises. Through drawing these parallels, I’m hoping to readers to understand how they might be able to help themselves in a similar way to what Harry Potter did. They can create their own spells, their own potions to create at home to battle their own Dementors and Boggarts and Deatheaters and whatever else. 

You have a “Pay it Forward” program for the book. Can you tell us about it?

Yes, you can purchase the book by paying for it monthly or one time through the website, and all the money will be going towards sending free self-help books, whether it’s Harry Potter Therapy, or Superhero Therapy, or Therapy Quest to people who can’t afford them. And for people who can’t afford them can send an email and request a free book. So long as we have books available, we will send them out. This campaign to provide free books will be for schools, individuals and hospitals that have financial need.

You can follow Dr. Scarlett on Twitter @ShadowQuill. You can purchase Harry Potter Therapy here, with all the proceeds going to support mental health charities and non-profits. Here is a link for a free download of Harry Potter Therapy for people with financial difficulties.