It’s a well-documented fact that J.K.Rowling suffers from depression. When she first began to write the Harry Potter books, she’d moved back from Portugal to Scotland, had separated from her partner, was unemployed and had a young child to raise. She began a downward spiral that Harry helped her out of, and in those stories she wrote the greatest metaphor for depression there’s ever been.
Depression is not an easy thing to describe. The feelings of hopelessness, sadness, of self-hatred, are not something that people find easy to comprehend, or to explain. Yet she manages to describe it in a truly horrific way, creating one of the most evil characters that exist in the Harry Potter universe: the dementors.
We first meet the dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. They play a significant part in the book, and continue to be prevalent in the remaining four. They appear when Harry, Ron and Hermione are on the Hogwarts Express, about to begin their third year of study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardgy. During their journey, the air grows cold. The windows freeze. Everyone is filled with an overwhelming sense of sadness, hopelessness, and never being able to feel happy again: the dementors feed on positive emotions. They force people to relive their worst memories, zoning in on Harry because his past is so dark. He hears his mother scream as she’s killed by Lord Voldemort, then blacks out. When he reawakens, he finds Professor Lupin—the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher—feeding Ron and Hermione chocolate: the best way to combat the negative emotions that the dementors bestow on you.
Not only are the dementors the most vile creatures in the Harry Potter universe, but they also have the ability to administer The Kiss. The Kiss is when they suck your soul away, leaving you as nothing more than an empty shell. This fate is usually saved for the very worst criminals from Azkaban, but when Voldemort takes charge, the dementors don’t care. Particularly when it comes to Harry.
The dementors are immortal. They cannot be killed. The only way to get rid of the them is with a Patronus charm. The Patronus charm is a bright light that takes the form of an animal, and the dementor feeds on that instead of the person that conjured it. The form of the animal reflects the person’s personality. Harry’s is a stag, like his father’s. In order to conjure a patronum you must think of the happiest, most powerful memory that you possess, and focus on it. Forcing yourself to focus on the happy memories, on those that you love, is also a way to combat depression. The bright light that is emitted from the caster’s wand that becomes the patronum could also be seen as a metaphor: a way of saying that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, but that they only person that can create that light is you.
The way that the dementors force you to relive the worst moments of your life could also be seen as a metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder, where sufferers often find reliving those moments so consuming that they, too, are like those that have been Kissed.
Whilst depression is not an easy thing to explain, suffering from it can range from the feeling of hopelessness that the dementors initially bestow on you, to the emptiness that a person possesses after The Kiss. It can take your life away to the point where you are no longer able to live; where it hurts to think even the simplest of things because you are so consumed in darkness. Luckily, unlike in Harry Potter, there is a way to reverse it. It’s never too late to find your Patronus charm; to find the positive memories and emotions that are worth living for.
Whilst not everyone is a fan of Harry Potter, no one can deny that J.K.Rowling should be praised for how she has incorporated one of the most painful, underestimated and misunderstood disorders that a person can suffer from into a children’s book. She made depression out as something not to be pitied, or laughed off, but as something terrifying. Something that doesn’t discriminate, or care anything about you. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, it can find you at any moment of your life and feed on your deepest, darkest thoughts. Thoughts you may not have even realised were there.
Not everyone may realise that the dementors are a metaphor for depression, but I hope that their creation will have a subconscious effect on us all. I don’t know many people that weren’t terrified of the dementors when they were first introduced in the books, or when we met them in the films. Luckily, once we close the book or turn off the TV the dementors are gone. The same can’t be said for depression.
Note: This article was originally published on the now-defunct Heart of Glass magazine. It was one of the most popular articles, and one that I was particularly proud of, and I’ve therefore decided to republish it here.