A teenage boy tosses and turns in bed. He can’t stop his racing thoughts, and it feels like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. A dark force looms over him, threatening everything he loves, but he feels isolated and afraid. No one believes his concerns, even as it’s plain to see the world is approaching disaster. His name is Harry Potter, and although he’s surrounded by many loving friends, he feels utterly alone.
This is an experience many can relate to, teens and adults alike. Especially after the last couple of years, when anxiety and depression practically became universal. We can learn a lot from what Harry Potter goes through. Though we don’t live in a world of dark wraiths and evil witches and wizards, the Harry Potter series offers an apt metaphor for dealing with mental health. The themes are subtle, but important.
Disclaimer: This post will contain some series spoilers, so if you haven’t read, stop here, and take some time to get caught up first.
The first mental health theme that stands out in Harry Potter is that of childhood trauma. Within the first few pages, we learn that Harry is stuck living with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, none of whom care one lick about him. If he gets attention, it’s derisive. He lives in a tiny cupboard under the stairs and must cope with the death of his parents on his own.
While thankfully not every child has this exact experience, many children do face traumas both big and small that stick with them well into adulthood, some of which are worse than what Harry experienced. It’s far from uncommon to find adults who have complicated relationships with their parents or caregivers. Emotional and physical neglect can lead to any number of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD, among others.
The series doesn’t dwell on Harry’s neglect. Instead, it focuses on Harry’s “found” or “chosen” family. Having a chosen family is also something that resonates with many folks in the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly those who have been abandoned by their relatives.
Disclaimer: JK Rowling has come under fire in recent years for her comments on trans experiences and trans rights, so it’s important to briefly address that controversy here. Inglenook sees Harry Potter as an important body of work apart from its author and her actions. We support the trans community and believe that where there's pain, there's also the potential to claim power.
Through his friends and chosen family, especially the warm and boisterous Weasley family, Harry can heal the traumas of his childhood and nurture his own capacity to love. Interestingly, the series’ villain Voldermort also experienced childhood neglect, but, lacking and rejecting the healing resources Harry benefited from, Voldemort took a very different path. Harry Potter is an example of how differently people can respond to similar trauma. It makes the case that trauma alone doesn’t dictate a person’s life path, and that we can lean on our friends and healthy family members for support in difficult times.
When it comes to trauma, finding support is key. Harry doesn’t take this journey alone, and neither should anyone else. The past two years have been particularly hard for everyone on this front, when there were so many obstacles to maintaining closeness and community. Harry and his friends remind us that true camaraderie endures–and helps vanquish–the darkest of times.
It’s impossible to talk about mental health in Harry Potter without bringing up anxiety. Fear is a theme that crops up again and again in every book, from the overt fear of Voldermort’s rise to power, to the covert fears that teenagers face every day.
The most obvious metaphor for anxiety in the series is the Dementor, a haunting creature that literally feeds on characters’ fear, consuming every warm thought and leaving only despair. The height of anxiety can feel a lot like a Dementor attack. Positive thoughts are replaced with negative ruminations, and soon you feel like a husk of your former self, paralyzed with fear. The Patronus charm comes to the characters’ rescue, conjured by thinking of something so positive and full of hope that it manifests as a powerful energy in the shape of an animal, chasing away the Dementors. While positive thinking doesn’t, on its own, cure anxiety, the example of the Patronus reminds us that hope and positivity can interrupt spiraling negative thought cycles, keeping them from becoming a Dementor-like way of being.
Another magical creature that serves as a metaphor for anxiety is the Boggart. Like a chameleon, this creature disguises itself as whatever its victim fears most. Through the Boggart, we learn more about the characters: Ron Weasley is terrified of spiders. Hermione Granger is afraid of failure. Harry Potter fears fear itself. By shouting the “Riddikulus” spell, the characters transform the Boggart into something that makes them laugh, thereby banishing the Boggart, and soothing their fears in the process.
If Patronus charms and Boggarts existed in the real world, people could probably save hours on therapy. But we’ll settle for the helpful lessons: hope, positivity, and laughter are good medicine.
When it comes to discussing mental health in Harry Potter, a pivotal moment in the series is one that some readers might have forgotten entirely: when Harry meets Luna Lovegood. Luna is not-so-affectionately known to her peers as “Loony” because she sees the world through a different lens. After witnessing Cedric Diggory’s murder, Harry also has a different lens, setting him a bit apart from his friends. He gains the ability to see Thestrals, horse-like creatures only visible to those who have seen death. He and Luna bond over their ability to see them, just as those who have experienced grief can find connection and solace in one another.
Later, during a scene in the Department of Mysteries, Harry and Luna encounter the Veil, a mysterious, fluttering fabric that conceals the world of the dead. It beckons. But only Harry and Luna can hear its whispers, enticing them to step beyond the fabric. They’re drawn to it while simultaneously fearing it. The Veil is a reference to the famous idiom “beyond the veil” (the state after death), and also a loose metaphor for depression, which is what often follows grief, a state that Harry falls more deeply into after losing his Godfather Sirius, who stumbles into the Veil before Harry’s eyes during a fight scene.
Harry goes through an intense grieving process after losing his Godfather. Profoundly angry, he lashes out at the people closest to him. Harry’s experience is a reminder that grief takes on many forms, whether a state of collapse, rage, wallowing sadness or a combination thereof. It’s an important lesson for readers: the wizarding world may be magical, but death, grief, and depression are things we all have to face. Magic can’t fix everything. Only the support of friends, the passage of time, and sharing his feelings aloud will get Harry through his grief.
Trauma, sadly, is universal. Whether it’s with a capital T or not, we all go through trauma, and we all must find a way to live with and confront the hurts that happen to us. When Harry faces Voldemort, he embodies this struggle.
He and his nemesis have strong linkages: both were abandoned at a young age, both grew up unloved, and both found power in magic. But Voldemort doesn’t know love and kinship, the very thing that saves Harry from dying as a baby the night Voldemort attacked his family. This difference between them is what destroyed Voldemort. When the killing curse backfires on him, it leaves the famous scar on Harry’s forehead, marking him with trauma. When Voldemort is close, Harry’s scar sears with pain. The two are unintentionally linked. The scar will always be on Harry’s skin, part of his identity. Trauma, too, can feel like a part of one’s identity. But, like Harry, to move past and process it, we have to face the pain and break the cycle, preventing trauma from being repeated, marking people again and again.
We can’t outright defeat depression, or cast a series of spells to banish the pain, but, with support, we can muster up the courage to fight internal battles day by day. Like Harry, but without a wand.
If you’re a parent, reading Harry Potter with an eye on its mental health themes can help you talk to your kids about their budding psyches. Having a magical lens to discuss feelings might open the door for young people to express themselves. Or anyone, for that matter. Harry Potter may be a young adult fantasy/mystery series, but it would be a mistake to assume it has nothing to teach grown-ups. The deeper themes about mental health are relevant for ages 9 to infinity.
Which scenes in the Harry Potter series had the greatest impact on you? Share your memories in the comments.