What ‘Harry Potter’ Teaches Us About Mental Illness 

These are a few things I noticed about mental health re-watching the Harry Potter films.

Cobra-size_restrictedDon’t bottle up your emotions – Have you ever been told that you are “too sensitive,” that you need to “just calm down,” and “think positively?” We learn to suppress our feelings and one day it’s going to backfire. If any of these statements have ever bothered you, you are not alone. As humans, we are emotional beings. Our emotions make us magical. That’s right, those very feelings that we are often taught to “brush off” and “just forget about” are the source of our greatest magical potential. Emotions make us care; they allow us to have access to our heart, to recognise what is most important to us. For example, when Harry unwittingly unleashed a boa constrictor on Dudley at the London Zoo. Just like Harry’s magical abilities, our emotions too are not meant to be suppressed.

bAll Boggarts can be banished – Boggarts are malevolent shape-shifting creatures that take on the form of whatever its observer fears the most. Much like our phobias and worst-case scenario-related thoughts, the 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 our worst fears and anxieties, rendering them much less threatening. For instance, when Ron ventures into the Forbidden Forest, following the scampering spiders with Harry, despite his arachnophobia. Or, when Neville manages to overcome his deep-rooted social anxiety and leads the students in a rebellion against the Death Eaters who had taken over Hogwarts. Bottom line: Don’t let your fears define you! 

happinessHappiness is a state of mind – “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest times, if one only remembers to turn on the light,” says Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This line is a powerful reminder that each one of us has an inner light within us, a beacon of happiness. We can either ignore it and let the circumstances control us or, we can choose to harness that light. That is, learn to have hope, look for the silver lining and continue to persevere. Throughout the series, Harry faces a lot of troubling challenges and despite all the evil and darkness he fights, he never loses that light of hope. Even though there is a lot of injustice out there, the series reminds us that there is always hope and that even one person can make a difference.

8617448_origAnything is possible if you truly believe in yourself – As Ginny muses in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “the thing about growing up with Fred and George, is that you sort of start thinking anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.” If shy Neville can slay Nagini, Dobby can attain freedom and knit socks for a living, Hogwarts-dropout Fred and George can successfully run Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes and an 18-year-old Harry can defeat Lord Voldemort — the most feared wizard in the history of Wizarding World — you can achieve your dreams too! No matter how impossible they might seem. All you need is oodles of patience and perseverance. Imagine how the Battle of Hogwarts would’ve turned out had Harry and the Order given up at the first hurdle they encountered?

giphyWatch out for Dementors – Dementors are hands-down one of the most terrifying magical creatures in Harry Potter. They suck the happiness out of an anyone they attack, leaving them cold, numb and utterly hopeless. “Oh,” I thought. That’s it. That’s depression. I know that feeling. Although some people might experience depression as feelings of sadness, others may experience it as a heavy, daunting, numbing feeling, and just like the dementors, it can strike anyone, any time, even those who appear to have everything in life. 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, “being connected with our happiest memories and our loved ones might create a strong enough Patronus charm to lessen the impact of a depression attack and make it more manageable.

originalIt’s okay to ask for help – Throughout the series, we see that Harry’s first instinct is to always solve his problems on his own. He is always reluctant to ask for help, which isn’t exactly a healthy habit, even though he does that because he doesn’t want to put his loved ones in danger. But as Harry learns it during the Triwizard Tournament and while tracking down Voldemort’s Horcruxes, not all your battles are meant to be fought alone. Sometimes you need a helping hand to achieve your desired goals and that’s completely fine. It might make you feel weak or vulnerable but asking for assistance when you need it is a smart move. It helps you gain a fresh perspective to tackle the challenges and keeps you from burning at both ends. Harry would’ve never been able to defeat Voldemort without the help of his friends, especially Ron and Hermione. And much like the wizardkind, it’s crucial for us muggles too — to survive and thrive. 

dDon’t let the muggles get you down – Prejudice, discrimination and stigma are recurring themes in Harry Potter books. First, it’s the Dursleys sneering at Harry’s magical abilities and labelling the wizardkind as “freaks”. Then we get to witness prejudice in the Wizarding World too. For instance, Hermione is bullied by Malfoy and other Slytherins for being a muggle-born. Meanwhile, Professor Lupin is forced to quit his teaching position after Snape outed him as a werewolf. The series teaches us to be more compassionate and accepting of others. And not let societal labels define who we are. Just like Hermione courageously fought stigma and strived to go above and beyond to become one of the greatest witches of all time, we can also learn to overcome stigma (of bullying, racism, disability, mental illness, etc.) and forge our own path. 

dobbyInvest in self-love and self-care – Whether you’re a witch/wizard or a muggle, self-care is key to a happy, fulfilling life. And that includes learning to accept your limits and not feel guilty about taking some time off for yourself. Remember when Hermione used the Time-Turner to take double the lessons than other students in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Yes, that’s what happens when you push yourself too hard. Similarly, we can also learn quite a few things about self-love from characters like Luna and Dobby. Luna is continually teased by fellow students for being “odd” and “eccentric”. She was even nicknamed “Loony” by some students. But she didn’t let the snide remarks cripple her or change her. She fiercely expressed herself, through her words as well as her quirky clothes and jewellery, and embraced herself for who she was. Another example is that of Dobby the elf. While working for the Malfoys, he was stuck in a vicious cycle of guilt and self-punishment. Every time the house-elf disobeyed direct orders, he’d literally beat himself for it. But he eventually understood his master was a narcissist and learnt to be a little more self-forgiving and self-accepting by bonding with people like Harry who supported him and nurtured his self-esteem, and by doing the one thing he really enjoyed — knitting socks! Like Dobby, we can also learn to be less self-critical and more compassionate toward ourselves.

hGrief is inevitable but not ineradicable – Traumatic experiences like loss of a loved one are always difficult to deal with. Harry lost both his parents when he was barely a year old. This was followed by the deaths of his beloved godfather — Sirius, Dumbledore, Fred, Dobby, Lupin and his pet owl — Hedwig. Each time it felt like a punch in the gut and left him emotionally shattered. But he learnt to pick himself up. Sometimes the grief was too overwhelming and moving on seemed a lot harder, but he got through it and came back stronger. Grief can make us see the world from a new perspective — like being able to see Thestrals — winged creatures that can only be seen by those who have seen death. The trauma of our past can leave metaphorical scars, or in Harry’s case, even physical ones. And these scars can hurt from time to time, especially when we are reminded of our traumatic experience. Although other people may not always understand the pain of our scars, their kindness can provide emotional soothing and healing, as can be seen from Harry’s interactions with his friends, as well as Dumbledore, Lupin and Mrs Weasley. In addition, the series can help us realize that we are not alone. In seeing our own struggles represented in fictional characters, we can see that there are others who can also understand what we’re going through. And as Dumbledore says, understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.

giphy (1)Love conquers all – The series highlights on several occasions that love is the most powerful source of magic. It’s Lily’s fierce love for her son that protected him from Voldemort, even after her death. Snape’s undying love for Lily was the reason he had a change of heart later on. Ron, Hermione and Harry’s love for each other made them weather all the storms. Love holds the same magical power in real life as well. It spurs positivity, keeps us motivated and gives us the strength to get through the difficult moments in our lives. Spending time with people we love and care about has been shown to release oxytocin 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.

2 thoughts on “What ‘Harry Potter’ Teaches Us About Mental Illness 

  1. Some interesting thoughts written here—and valid. I hadn’t really analyzed Harry Potter but I can see all of your points. Parents who dislike this series should read this post. They might change their minds.

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