From the soul-sucking Dementors to the marginalized heroes, the ‘Harry Potter world teaches tolerance and compassion to children.
Harry Potter has sold about 500 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling book series.
Talking About mental illness through books
Bibliotherapy is a type of psychotherapy. It’s a type of therapy that uses books to help patients improve their mental health. Bibliotherapy is based on the idea that reading books and thinking about stories can help us get through difficult times in our lives, such as anxiety and addiction (PTSD).
Books frequently take the most difficult, conflicting aspects of life and present them to us through a new lens. Readers do not judge you. Books provide a safe environment where we can explore complex topics in the world around us and our internal conflicts.
This method of using books is particularly effective for children. Children, after all, are still growing. For the most part, they’re a blank slate. They can learn empathy and kindness just as they learn prejudice and stereotypes.
Dementors as a metaphor for depression
We were never told that Dementors were a metaphor for depression when we were kids. Our parents never sat with us to talk about mental health or explained that Professor Lupin’s lycanthropy was a metaphor for mental illness stigmatization.
We all can see how reading Harry Potter changed our perspective on the world. After all, children learn by watching others. Our childhood heroes struggled with depression, marginalization, PTSD, anxiety, and addiction. We knew that talking about these issues was acceptable only when we first encountered them through my adored characters.
We all discovered that someone facing these difficulties could still be a hero.
Harry’s boggart assumed the form of a Dementor. Dementors are horrible creatures that sap the joy from anyone they encounter. Their presence is icy, numbing, and depressing as if nothing will ever be right again. This is how many people suffering from clinical depression (major depressive disorder) feel.
Although some people experience depression as sadness, others describe it as a heavy, intimidating, numbing sensation. Depression attacks, like Dementors, can strike “out of nowhere” and affect people differently. People who have previously experienced traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, child abuse, alienation, or bullying, may be more vulnerable to Dementor attacks. Connecting with a group of very close friends, a meaningful memory, or an activity, on the other hand, might be enough to keep our Dementors at bay or the very least, make them more manageable.
Having to deal with the fear of mental illness
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, there is a scene where Harry Potter braces himself to face a boggart. This creature takes the form of a person’s worst nightmare. The only way to defeat the boggart is to face your fear, accept it, and laugh.
Many of the students in Harry’s class were afraid of specific people or things, such as the teacher, a mummy, or a giant spider. But a Dementor is Harry’s worst nightmare.
Harry’s apprehension of Dementors is significant. Dementors are a metaphor for the deep, unbreakable cycle of hopelessness and depression. Harry is afraid of losing all of his happy memories and being left with only his worst qualities — loss, death, and sorrow.
This is also my most terrifying fear. To become completely unrecognizable. To be devoid of hope and happiness. To exist as a shadow, empty of joy. We will find acceptance in watching Harry face his fears. His fears have been confirmed.
The impact of reading on future empathy
Our experience with Harry Potter regarding tolerance and empathy is not unique.
According to studies, children who read Harry Potter have greater empathy for stigmatized or marginalized groups. Students exposed to prejudice-related passages in Harry Potter were more likely to feel sympathy for LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities, according to Professor Loris Vezzali of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.
“Reading literature with complex, developed themes and characters appears to let readers occupy or adopt perspectives they might not consider otherwise,” according to a study published in Science magazine.
It’s a rare gift to be able to return to the wonder of childhood, free of the cynicism that creeps into adult bones over time. Finding new magic in old stories is even rarer — magic that can only be seen because you’ve grown up and learned to see the world through different eyes.
That’s how rereading Harry Potter feels right now.
Many books, including Harry Potter, teach empathy and open the door to healthy discussions about mental illness and social acceptance.
But what if we didn’t only read books like these? What if we encouraged our children to talk about mental health by using these unbelievable stories as a starting point? What if we built a society where defeating our Dementors was celebrated as much as any other personal or professional accomplishment?
Children reluctantly churn through books like Lord of the Flies, Great Expectations, and other “literature” with a capital “L” in our current public education system. Shouldn’t we use books that children want to read if we want them to learn behavior and vocabulary? Instead of forcing our children to read Great Expectations, what if we used it to teach them how to be better people using the book they already love?