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How Harry Potter can help us cope with depression

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Oct 18, 2018, 6:04 PM EDT

"This pain is part of being human... the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength." - Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Even 21 years after its initial publication, the Harry Potter series continues to top the charts for best-selling books. The Harry Potter universe continues to grow through the ongoing Fantastic Beasts films, as well as Universal Studios theme parks, video and mobile games, and numerous related books and events. What makes this fandom especially powerful, and can it be helpful for mental health?

As both a clinical psychologist and a die-hard Harry Potter fan, I believe that the series provides readers with a rich connection to its characters and their struggles. This kind of connection can be potentially helpful in assisting people in managing their mental health, including depression, anxiety, and trauma-related disorders. And although the series offers a potential escape from our daily mental health monsters, it also provides a potential healing from them.

The series tells the story of Harry Potter, a young wizard, whose parents are brutally murdered by an evil dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, when Harry is only 15 months old. Harry is then sent to live with his relatives, who constantly physically and emotionally abuse him, tease him, threaten him, and refuse to accept and acknowledge his magical identity. When Harry turns 11, he learns that he is in fact a wizard, and receives an invitation to attend Hogwarts, a School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he meets his two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Throughout the series, Harry and his friends face numerous obstacles, including Lord Voldemort himself, as well as villainous teachers and terrifying monsters.

Harry Potter Dementors

In the third book/film of the series, Harry faces Dementors — horrific monsters that guard the magical prison, Azkaban. Whenever the Dementors approach, they create an excruciating effect on humans. Specifically, the Dementors make people feel cold, numb, and hopeless. Those exposed to Dementors might have thoughts that they will never experience happiness again and feel as if all the happiness has been drained from them. If the Dementors attack strongly enough, they can actually suck the soul out of their victim (i.e., a Dementor’s kiss).

These creatures seem to create a kind of an effect, similar to that of depression present in people with major depressive disorder (MDD), as well as seasonal affective disorder, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, persistent depressive disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and others. Furthermore, people with other mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and various anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and others, may also experience depressive symptoms in addition to their primary condition. People with depression might experience chronic sadness, or, more commonly, numbness, as well as emptiness, and hopelessness. In addition, people with depression might also believe that things will never get better and that they might never be able to feel happy again. These thoughts and sensations can make it difficult for people with depression to enjoy things that they normally do, as well as to find the motivation to get out of bed, exercise, socialize, and engage in the kind of activities that they might enjoy at other times.

As painful as it may feel to experience a bout of depression, the worst part is usually the utter loneliness and disconnection that follows. Many people do not know someone they can turn to, someone who is, or has at some point, experienced depression, or someone who can understand what they are going through. Most individuals I have met and seen in treatment do not feel comfortable disclosing how badly they are struggling. One of the reasons people with depression and other mental health disorders may struggle in opening up about their experiences is that many of them have been shamed for how they feel, think, or behave, and have been told to “suck it up,” “get over it,” “focus on the positive,” or “look on the bright side.” Many have also been shamed and told that their struggles aren’t as bad as other people’s. Such shaming can worsen people’s current conditions, amplifying their already overwhelming sense of depression and hopelessness. These feelings can sometimes become so excruciating that people begin to avoid social interactions, making excuses as to why they are unable to attend social obligations and gatherings in which they might experience additional shaming. Such avoidance is not weakness; it is a survival mechanism.

Although disconnection from toxic environments, which add to one’s distress, can be helpful, disconnection from all social groups can actually worsen one’s symptoms. For example, although being away from his abusive relatives, the Dursleys, is good for Harry’s mental health, being away from Ron and Hermione, as well as his other friends and mentors, usually leads to him feeling worse. Like Dobby, a sweet elf who frequently tries to keep Harry safe by keeping him within the confinements of his home, depression often sends its sufferers the same message. Specifically, depression might make us think that staying at home will make us feel better.

"Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it." - Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Initially, when people avoid their commitments and social connections, they usually experience some short-term relief, as Harry does when he is able to run away from the Dementors. However, in the long term, the effects of depression, loneliness, and disconnection usually worsen when we are deprived of all meaningful connection. Like Harry Potter, locked in his room for weeks by his aunt and uncle, feeling angry, isolated, and left alone with his depression and trauma, prolonged disconnection can exacerbate mental illness. To put it in other terms: Continued disconnection from our friends and meaningful activities could make us a bigger target for a Dementor attack.

In addition, like the Horcruxes (objects into which Lord Voldemort stores fragments of his soul after murdering others), depression often lies. When Harry’s friend, Ron, is about to destroy one of the Horcruxes, he hears Voldemort’s voice telling him and showing him the worst, most horrific, most awful things that Ron could imagine. Voldemort’s voice tells Ron the very things he has always feared, such as that his mother does not love him, that Hermione prefers Harry over him, and that Harry and Hermione are better off without him. Voldemort also shows him grotesque images of Harry and Hermione passionately kissing. Just like Voldemort’s most toxic Horcrux, depression can lie. It can make us envision what we are most afraid of, making us temporarily believe that these events are truly happening, making us believe that we are not important, that we are a burden, a failure, or that we are not enough.

Depression can make us believe that the world would be better off without us or that we will never succeed at the journey we started. But here is the thing about depression — like Voldemort’s Horcrux, it shows us what we care about the most, what we are most afraid to lose, what is truly worth fighting for. To put it another way, if depression tells us that people do not care about us, that means that social connection and belonging is very important to us, crucial even. And it means that a kind of action or connection, which can bring us closer to what is most meaningful, can potentially destroy our own Dementors, or at the very least, weaken their powers.

In the series, the only spell that can protect people against a Dementor attack is the Patronus Charm. In order to summon one’s Patronus (a protective shield, which usually looks like a silvery-glowing animal), the spell-caster must think of their happiest memory. However, merely thinking of a time when one felt joy (such as when Harry Potter learned to fly his broom) is not enough to conjure a Patronus. Instead, the witch or wizard casting the spell has to think of their most meaningful memory (such as a connection with one’s loved ones).

Although the example of casting a Patronus Charm against a Dementor attack may be a fictional one, it turns out that it is very close to what we come to understand about mental health. To be exact, meaningful connections with loved ones can temporarily alleviate some (but not necessarily all) of the devastating effects of depression. Why is that? When we connect with people (or pets, or activities) that we love, our bodies release certain “feel good” chemicals, such as oxytocin and endorphins. I refer to these chemicals as our body’s own magical potions. Other “magical potions” that our body can make include dopamine and serotonin. Interestingly, these chemicals can be produced when we eat a piece of chocolate, which can sometimes be helpful when facing our own Dementors of depression.

Because the Harry Potter series portrays the kind of struggles that may be familiar to many of us — depression, grief, anxiety, trauma, bullying, and heartbreak — it allows for a potential mirror of our lives. Like a gentle friend who has been through a similar experience, the series can support us at a time when we need it most. In my clinical practice, I have seen many clients who reported that the Harry Potter series has helped them heal after traumatic events, such as sexual assault, child abuse, loss or murder of a family member. In addition, many share that the series has helped them to better manage their physical and mental health disorders, such as chronic pain, cancer, depression, anxiety, addiction, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, PTSD, and many others.

For example, one of my clients lost both of her parents to suicide when she was a child. Growing up with her critical relatives, she frequently felt that she did not fit in with them, leading her to feel depressed and lonely. When my client first started reading the series, she felt as if she could almost talk to Harry. “I felt like I knew him, like he was my friend.” Going through the series with Harry, my client learned to grieve alongside with him, learning about the power of friendship, as well as the power to stand up for what she believed in. As a teenager, my client joined the Harry Potter fanfiction community and now helps support other trauma survivors through that group.

Have you benefited from reading or watching Harry Potter? If so, what message of support would you like to give to other people who might be struggling at the moment?

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