Depression and the Patronus Charm

Staff writer Katie Majka discusses how dementors act as a metaphor for depression, and how the Patronus Charm inspires treatment for people who suffer from this real-life strain of mental illness.

A few weeks ago, the Wizards&Whatnot writers devoted our Wizard’s Council to a discussion of our favorite Harry Potter spells, wherein I touched upon the nature of the Patronus Charm. This discussion gave me a lot to mull over, especially since the spell in question has stayed with me through the years since I first read Prisoner of Azkaban.

At the time, young as I was, I regarded the dementors as nothing more than magical creatures that were perhaps sinister and worth a shudder, but in the end they were safely tucked into the pages of a book and therefore of no real consequence to me. I did not then consider how reflective life and literature are, nor did I have any real concept, let alone profound understanding, of mental illness. It wasn’t until early on in my twenties that I began to understand—through my own scope of pain, personal tragedy, and its self-destructive aftermath—what, exactly, J.K. Rowling had conveyed through her invention of the dementors and their only true combatant, the Patronus Charm.  

Rowling’s own battle with depression served as the origin of the dementors, and she went on to explain the nature of both animals when she said, “It’s that absence of feeling—and it’s even the absence of hope that you can feel better. And it’s so difficult to describe to someone who’s never been there because it’s not sadness. Sadness is—I know sadness—sadness is not a bad thing. You know? To cry and to feel. But it’s that cold  absence of feeling—that really hollowed-out feeling. That’s what the dementors are.”  

As is the custom in the fantasy genre, creatures as dark as the dementors can only be fought with light and hope. In fact, according to the Harry Potter Wiki page on the subject, the light and hope that manifests in the Patronus Charm is not only the primary defense against dementors, but the only one. The oft acknowledged difficulty of the spell speaks to the harsh nature of depression, and how difficult it is to combat, especially without proper treatment.

It is also suggested here that self-confidence may be a factor in the successful casting of a Patronus. That’s not to say that a pep talk every morning is any kind of cure—not in the least; rather, it’s the recognition that you need help and mustering the confidence to seek it. Like any problem, it can be difficult to admit both that it exists and that you can’t handle it on your own. When we consider the social stigma that surrounds depression, oftentimes this process proves even more difficult.   

The fact that a corporeal Patronus’ form varies from person to person is an important note when we apply the fictional practice to the real illness. Depression affects its victims differently, and as such coping mechanisms and treatment vary as well. Even when people suffer from the same ailment, we retain our individuality in that not every treatment will work the same or even similarly; in fact, treatment that works for one person may hinder another.

The Patronus’ uniqueness likewise speaks to each person’s own inner strength. Our strength and triumphs over our demons—whether internal or external—manifest in whatever way is most beneficial to us. While finding out what is most beneficial to you may require some trial-and-error—much like Harry struggling for his happiest memory—you will get there. It’s a stepping stone to recovery and learning to live with depression, rather than the illness running your life entirely.

Despite the fact that inner strength is crucial in combating depression, the widely and inexplicably accepted notion that mental fortitude is all it takes to cure you is ludicrous, at best. You cannot talk yourself out of mental illness. You can only find it within yourself to acknowledge that it’s real and that you need help—seeking professional help is as far as you can take yourself on your own. Just as Harry sought out help from Lupin, you have to seek the same from people who can help you, and who will encourage your treatment and recovery.

Social stigma ranges far and wide, from someone’s flippant statement that they’re depressed over a bad day, to the sanctimonious judgment and cruel mockery that graces the internet when a well-known name commits suicide as a result of unmanageable depression. This misunderstanding and lack of empathy is harmful in that it discourages sufferers from seeking the help they need, whether because they’re ashamed of their illness or they think it’s nothing they can’t handle on their own.

The fact is, however, that continuing on untreated is dangerous for your mental, emotional, and even physical health. Sufferers of depression are at greater risk for insomnia, alcohol and drug abuse, heart attack, and suicide—risks that only increase when the illness goes unchecked. As of 2015, 350 million people worldwide suffer from some sort of depression. In the U.S. alone, 50% of those suffering don’t seek the necessary treatment.

This is why it’s so vital that depression is acknowledged as a disease as deadly as any physical one, and why it matters that someone with Rowling’s social presence has spoken publicly about her own battle. Even within the pages of a fantasy novel, Rowling describes depression (through the mouth of Remus Lupin in Prisoner of Azkaban) in such a way that it hammers the issue home:

“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself—soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”  

When depression feeds on you, it doesn’t invalidate your personhood, but challenges it so roughly and so thoroughly that you are left exhausted, spent, and with no motivation to wake up again. There is no way to “snap out of it”—there is only the long, arduous climb to dealing with it. While that climb may never truly end, it’s doable, it’s survivable, and you are worth every step.

We stood by Harry and cheered him on while he jumped his hurdles, while he faced his fears under the most emotionally charged stimuli, and he continues to give us hope whenever we choose to revisit his journey by page and screen alike. When we stop to examine what J.K. Rowling has given us in the form of Harry’s trials and his triumphs, we can give that strength to ourselves, too. We can reassure ourselves as Harry did himself that our inner goodness is what saves us and benefits the world around us. No matter the forces that would inhibit us, no matter how we think they weaken us, it’s crucial that we take the steps to assure our strength in spite of those obstacles. We all suffer our worst moments, our darkest days, but as Dumbledore says, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.”

There is always help, always hope, and you are worth all that it has to offer.

Visit WebMD to learn more about depression, its symptoms, treatment, and the dangers of going untreated.

If your depression (or any other inhibitors) is resulting in suicidal thoughts, please call your suicide hotline for help.