Yesterday, July 31, was a magical day: the birthdate of J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. Not to mention, it was also Harry’s birthday too. Reflecting on the birthdate of one of my favorite authors and the magical world that she created, I wanted to share a post that I have been writing for some time now, “What I have learned about mental health and Harry Potter”:
I remember the first time I read Harry Potter. I was in fourth grade, and my teacher assigned the class to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember being completely engrossed. I would always look forward to silent reading during the day so I can pull out my book and get swept away in the magical world that Rowling created
(I also waited for the arrival of my Hogwarts letter when I turned 11, which I never received, but I digress).
Throughout the last 15 years, I’ve reread the series a number of times. I know the movies by heart. I love Harry Potter. I love the waves of sweet nostalgia I experience while reading the books and watching the films. I love the character development and the lessons that we learn as Harry, Ron, and Hermione face all of these near-death experiences and somehow manage to simultaneously keep up with their lessons and social lives. I don’t know how they do it —it’s like magic or something.
Needless to say, I am a Harry Potter fanatic. For my literary-themed wedding, I made sure that there was some Harry Potter inspiration sprinkled in there. I have a Harry Potter shrine at home, where I display my hardcover books and collectibles.
Every few years or so, I make an effort to reread the series, and I find that I continue to learn more about the plot line and relate to the characters in some way. My husband and I are currently listening to the audiobooks (Jim Dale is amazing!), and just wrapped up Order of the Phoenix. While I always notice something new or something I’ve forgotten about the plot, the last few times around, I noticed something much heavier about the series.
As a person who has a close connection with mental health, I began to realize that Harry Potter is filled with symbolism around mental health, specifically PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I noticed this because I experience these particular challenges myself. They are prevalent in Harry’s character, who experiences the brunt of bad things throughout the series as one of our heroes. This is a topic that I am looking forward to exploring as I continue to read more theory (lots of theory) and continue my graduate studies.
It is well known now that J.K. Rowling wrote The Philosopher’s Stone during a very rough time in her life; she was suffering from depression and facing dark times. It is during this dark time that she found her light in creating a world of her own, unbeknownst that one day millions of people would too find escape and solace in it.
It is in The Order of the Phoenix where I realized how much I resonated with Harry’s character. Harry, who has had his share in traumatic experiences in the past four years, is now feeling completely isolated. Despite having the support of his two best friends and other allies, Harry feels alone. He is angry, violent, and fragile; he cannot control his emotions. His mood swings are frequent, and while he wants to be around people, he also finds himself wanting to be alone. While reading this novel, I cannot help but see the signs of depression and post-traumatic stress, two things that I combat on a daily basis.
If we take a step back and look at Harry’s life, he is continuously suffering from extreme loss. He grew up in a home where he was mistreated and then discovers that his parents were killed by a powerful sorcerer who tried to kill him too. Despite being happier than he’s ever been at Hogwarts, he continues to experience hardships. To name a few, he nearly escapes death four times, battling Lord Voldemort, dementors (which symbolize the ugliness of depression), witnesses the death of a friend, and is now being ridiculed and slandered by his schoolmates and the entire wizarding world for telling the truth. Professor Dumbledore, an ally, and mentor is no longer speaking to him. He is hurt, angry, and feels alone.
Harry cannot even control his own mind; it is constantly being overtaken by a dark and angry entity. Throughout most of the series, Lord Voldemort infiltrates Harry’s mind giving him access to his most dark and violent emotions, thoughts, and acts. This is beneficial to Harry, for he is able to follow Voldemort’s moves as he fights to destroy him, but it is also detrimental to his mental and physical health. Despite being asked to learn how to combat these infiltrations in his brain with occlumency, he has trouble finding the will to do so. Voldemort’s power of legilimency is equivalent to the power of depression and the thoughts that can take over your mind. Although unwanted, sometimes it is easier to succumb to it rather than fight it. Harry’s scar and its constant burning is a metaphor for the power that mental health issues can hold on a person. While Harry’s is visible, most mental health scars are hidden, but those who have them are reminded that they are always fighting an ongoing battle.
What I have learned from the Harry Potter series is that despite there being so much dark in the series, there is also light. Harry may have these demons trying to plague his mind, but he comes to the realization that he has something that is stronger than any force in the world: love. He also has true friendship and support, something that someone like Voldemort will never have. In the ministry, Voldemort tries to overcome Harry’s mind and fully possess him, but Harry fights back. Love and light always win.
Although there is darkness, love is one of the key themes of the series, and gosh, does it overflow with it! There are characters who feel so deeply, who suffer from so much pain, but they fight through it. Dumbledore said it best to Harry after he lost Sirius:
“The pain is part of being human…the fact that you can feel pain like this is your biggest strength.”
Pain is strength. Accepting the pain is, even more, strength, and fighting through it can lead to healing, like Harry’s scar at the end of the series. If you think about it, what are the last words in The Deathly Hallows?
“All was well.”
Authors note: I noticed upon research after my post that this topic of Harry Potter and mental health has been discussed by others before on Reddit and other forums. If anyone else out there has anything to add/discuss, please comment below or send me an email! I’d love to hear other theories or examples! Best, Kassondra.