Rowling’s Gift of Expecto Patronum

200_sJoanne Rowling is well-known for reaching out to fans in need, often through social media.  So it probably shouldn’t surprise us that, when a depressed young Brazilian fan tweeted her asking for help in banishing his own dementors, she responded with encouragement, as did many other Potterphiles.

tumblr_o0t5oj36ed1qkvbwso1_500Rowling has always been open about creating the dementors from her own experience with clinical depression. The two major effects of depression, intense despair and the inability to feel happiness, correspond to the first two symptoms listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s official guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  But, the dementors also induce the rest of the nine symptoms.  Harry is often confused or unable to concentrate cntped0713_Feature-2_Table-1when confronted with dementors, and Sirus tells us that Azkaban prisoners stop eating, have sleep disturbances and “go quiet after a while,” representing the symptoms of loss of appetite, insomnia and psychomotor retardation.

Dementors sap the prisoners’ mental and physical energy, so that they lose the will to escape.  As Lupin tells Harry, “They don’t need walls or water to keep the prisoners in, not when they’re trapped inside their own heads.”  Harry guiltily relives his parents’ deaths under dementor influence and, during the Battle of Hogwarts, comes close to a type of suicide.

Fred was gone, and Hagrid was surely dying or already dead… How many more lay dead that he did not yet know about; he felt as though his soul had already half left his body…A hundred dementors were advancing, gliding toward him, sucking their way towards Harry’s despair… his own wand trembled in his hand, and he almost welcomed the oncoming oblivion, the promise of nothing, of no feeling…

tumblr_mzq6bfKSeL1sz672jo1_400What is less well-known is that Rowling found relief from her depression through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which, unsurprisingly, bears a striking resemblance to the spell that banishes dementors, Expecto Patronum, Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches patients to recognize depressive thoughts and replace them with positive ones, often reminders of good things, happy memories or past successes. Harry’s Patronus summoning memories often take the form of victories (like riding a broomstick), escapes (like Umbridge being sacked) or of his friends Ron and Hermione.  Luna actually plays the role of a Cognitive Behavioral therapist as she comes to his aid at Hogwarts.

“That’s right,” said Luna encouragingly, as if they were back in the Room of Requirement and this was simply spell practice for the D.A. “That’s right, Harry… come on, think of something happy.”

“Something happy?” he said, his voice cracked.

“We’re all still here, “ she whispered. “We’re still fighting. Come on now…”

There was a silver spark, then a wavering light and then, with the greatest effort it had ever cost him, the stag burst from the end of Harry’s wand.

3eff1dab262a42b975b44c9a734423caRowling’s openness about her depression and successful treatment has clearly inspired others, even before the recent Twitter exchanges. She advised her Brazilian fan to “Ask for help. Don’t fight alone.” In a 2008 interview, she praised the virtues of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, saying “It worked for me, so obviously I’m very pro- [CBT]…and it gives you strategies for hereafter…I want to tell everyone that they must go and get help.” Rowling has done much to de-stigmatize mental illness and its treatment and therapists have found the example of her books useful in therapy, particularly with children. She would no doubt approve of a mental health awareness event held by University of Virginia students last year, with the slogan, “Everyone Has Dementors.”  By fictionalizing her own successful treatment, she has given many Muggles the ability to cast their own Patronus.

If you want to know more about Harry Potter and how it can help in the understanding of depression, you can read my Study and Scrutiny article or check out this Mugglenet Academia podcast.  Hat tip to Lynn Eddy, via John.


  1. By far and away the Patronus Charm is my favourite spell from the series. I often marvel at the real world parallels that you’ve written about above, and the extraordinary meaning of “Expecto Patronum”- expect a protector/saviour- as out of Harry’s wand bursts a symbol of Christ. I first read about this in one of John’s books and, to this day, I’m blown away by the power of this image. Thanks for posting this and for all the work everyone does on this site and on Mugglenet Academia. It is truly an enriching experience to be a part of these conversations.

  2. David Martin says

    Thank you for this.

    I notice how often Harry’s casting of his Patronus is not just for his own protection but also for the protection of others – for Sirius, for Dudley, for Hermione and Ron. In one of the interviews where Rowling talked about her own struggle she said that one of the driving forces for her was the need to care for her daughter. I suspect that she, too, was casting her Patronus – practicing her CBT – for the protection of others.

  3. David Martin says

    I read your excellent paper on Harry Potter and the DSM (at the Study and Scrutiny link given above). When looking at Dementor effects and matching them up with the DSM-IV criteria, we might also consider the description Hagrid gives of his brief time in Azkaban on pages 220-221 in PoA.

  4. Louise M. Freeman says

    Very good thoughts, David, thank you! I had forgotten Hagrid’s description of the dementors but the hopelessness and wanting to die is right on the money. I think my favorite Patronus-trigger is Luna’s “We’re all still here. We’re still fighting.” which underscores the social support aspect.

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