TW: mention of suicide, self harm and disordered eating.
The mental health system in the Wizarding World echoes our own; it’s unsatisfactory.
Of course, I write from the privileged perspective of living in the UK, a rich country with a very good healthcare system. But one that is underfunded, over-used, and at times under appreciated. I have nothing but the upmost respect for all who dedicate their time to our NHS, and maintain it even in such difficult times.
In the Harry Potter universe, medical care is quite a mystery. There do not seem to be any classes on healthcare or even basic first-aid at Hogwarts. Some might be encompassed by charms, such as a charm for fixing a broken bone, or assumedly a charm that elevates could be used to safely transport an injured person. Moreover, potions might encompass at times healing potions and antidotes alongside the usual deadly poisons. Wizards are of course quite bouncy. That is, they are breakable, but like Neville proves, they tend to bounce rather than crack, and heal quicker than Muggles. But that doesn’t mean that when they get hurt, usually from magical incidences, it isn’t bad. Now obviously, like doctors, assumedly British healers go on to some kind of post-school training and it’s not all ‘make it up as you go along’. (Though attempting to use stitches to close a wound, having apparently not researched it very well and also aware that it was a wound called by a venomous and magical snake, seems a bit on the ‘making it up’ line of thought). Some wizards do seem to have some understanding of basic first-aid – treating the wounds caused by Umbridge’s quills, and of course splinching accidents, are the ones that spring to mind first.
But we don’t hear much about it. And what else don’t we hear about?
In a school full of hormonal teenagers, the concept of mental health is so very important. Practicing good mental health, looking after you and your mates.
People ask why there are so few (which here means none that we hear about) teen pregnancies at Hogwarts. I’d ask, why are there so few suicide attempts and self-harming incidents? The answer, I’d argue, is that it’s a kids’ series that focuses on a young hero being chosen and teaming up with his friends to overthrow an evil man who eventually becomes a dictator whilst in his search for immortality. Fanfiction covers the teen pregnancies and suicide attempts for us.
I’m not annoyed that we don’t hear about the effect bullying has on Luna Lovegood, or the hypothetical situation where someone accidentally burns themselves in potions and realises actually sometimes that hurt is good. I don't want a discussion of the complexities of mental health, focus on ones that effect teenagers so much (or at least appear in the teenage years often) that result in disordered eating or risk taking. It’s potentially triggering, and arguably irrelevant to the plot.
But good mental health doesn’t even get a mention anyway. And there are situations where it’s really really appropriate.
When Harry starts hearing the basilisk, he’s reminded that hearing voices isn’t good, even in the Wizarding World. But it isn’t implied that this is because it might be an indication that something’s not right, that he’s unwell, but rather that he might be losing it. Immediately stigmatised. No one says, ‘hey maybe you’re stressed’ (because he could still have rejected that and the plot could have continued just fine).
Ginny Weasley had her mind manipulated, and lost so much bodily and mental autonomy to part of the soul of the Dark Lord. And we only get reminded about it when she has a go at Harry for not speaking to her when he fears he might have been possessed. We don’t hear about her trauma, cause yeah, it’s a story about Harry not Ginny (sadly). We hear the Weasleys go on holiday after, but we don’t find hear that Ginny maybe sees someone once a week at St Mungo’s. Or every now and then checks in with a teacher she favours. Of course, it wasn’t on the forefront of our beloved author’s mind right? Cause again, it’s a book about Harry and his pals until Ginny conveniently gets attractive. But a throwaway line on how it’s ok to accept help, could really make a difference.
Then there’s werewolfism, or lycanthropy if we want to be fancy. We hear about the stigma, and it’s great to see the struggle to reject said stigma and accept individuals for who and what they are. We see that there’s treatment for the werewolf’s physical symptoms, but not for the mental torment they undergo. What’s it like to lose complete control? To be unaware of who you are, what you are, where you are? To not even remember that situation? Well I imagine it’s a little bit like when you’re scared you’re losing yourself, and that’s hard enough to cope with, without having to acknowledge you have the potential to seriously hurt innocent people. We know that lycanthropy might be a metaphor for AIDS, or other stigmatised illnesses, and we know that Lupin speaks with a young infected man at St Mungo’s – offering him advice and support. But we don’t know that he tries to set up a support network, or that Dumbledore or anyone in his life bar maybe Lily said ‘if you ever need someone, let me know’.
Alice and Frank Longbottom open another can of worms. They seem to be in vegetative or near vegetative states, possibly caused by the trauma of being tortured. We see them, we pity them, we move on. In the aftermath of a war, that had scarred so many lives, there clearly was no emotional support instituted by government, Hogwarts, or anyone. Of course, this can be taken as another example of ‘we don’t hear about it’ and ‘the ministry is a bit rubbish tbf’.
Then there’s poor old Gilderoy. For starters, memory charms are incredibly awful things and would most certainly be a violation of human rights. But the fact that he performed them on so many other people, doesn’t really make his own unfortunate lasting damage any easier to stomach. That Hermione uses memory charms on her parents, is even more questionable. Then there’s Ron and the whole driving test thing. Apparently it’s fine to manipulate the minds of others, possibly leading to long term damage and clearly contributing towards pre-existing conditions, as long as those people are Muggles and therefore inferior to the oh-so-powerful wizards…
But the ward at St Mungo’s actually manages to lose Lockhart. Sure, they’re likely understaffed and overfilled and dealing with the whole Dark Lord on his way back thing. And losing patients does happen. But losing a patient with a mental health issue, one who can’t even remember where he is half the time, and losing him implicitly multiple times, is a bit dodgy.
Then there’s language. Everyone’s crazy or insane or as Ron so elegantly puts it ‘off your rocker’. We hear that shock therapy exists in the Wizarding World, to Hermione’s disgust. A note – shock therapy has proven effective for some people more recently and has moved on from its primitive roots in our world. That is, when used by doctors who have some level of decency and for actual health conditions (read not as conversion therapy). But from Hermione’s reaction, that’s not the case in the Wizarding World. There’s chocolate for the sadness of Dementors (who represent depression, though not to ruin the effect but as Rowling knows too – chocolate didn’t fix my mother and neither did thinking happy thoughts), and there’s short term solutions like cheering charms and other quick-fixes. But there’s nothing long term.
But Rowling does insert reference and does insert metaphors that open the floor to discussions of mental health by readers. Which might lead us to conclude that Rowling does not stigmatise mental health in her works, but depicts a world in which mental health is still stigmatised and thus the mental health care and support provided is still shockingly inadequate.