Using Harry Potter to Teach Your Children About Stigma

The popular books can teach important lessons about the stigma process

Posted Jan 28, 2018

When adolescents and young adults experience mental health problems for the first time, research suggests that they initially have an urge to conceal their symptoms and avoid seeking treatment.  This is because, as children, they were likely socialized to associate mental illness with negative stereotypes- that people with mental illness are dangerous, unpredictable, incompetent, and incapable of functioning in society.  Then (as conceived by Professor Bruce Link’s modified labeling theory) the stereotypes take on “personalized relevance,” wherein people experiencing symptoms begin to think that the stereotypes apply to them.  It therefore makes sense that, if we want to interrupt the process of concealment and treatment avoidance that so frequently occurs, we should try to change what children are socialized to believe about mental illness.  But how do children get “socialized” to believe that mental illness is a bad and shameful thing?

The socialization process is obviously quite complex, and involves factors that are within, and beyond, parental control.  Popular media, such as books, movies, TV and (increasingly) online games/videos can contribute substantially to the socialization of children to the norms and values of society. (Research in 2010 indicated that US children spent an average of 6 hours per day engaged with such media at that time). Considering how these media treat mental illness, studies have found that children’s movies and books frequently reinforce negative stereotypes.  For example, one study found that 85% of Disney films contained negative verbal references to mental illness, while another review found that 1 in 4 children’s films had a character depicted as having mental illness, and that the majority of these depictions reinforced negative stereotypes.   

As a parent, my exposure to the treatment of mental illness in children’s media supports what previous research has found.  Many films and books geared toward children casually denigrate mental illness in a way that even adult books and films rarely do.  However, the most popular children’s book and film series in recent history- J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, which has sold 100's of millions of copies- stands out as different.  As a result, the “Harry Potter” series presents unique opportunities for teaching children about stigma in several areas.  However, as much of this information can easily be missed by children, it is most likely to be effective if parents point it out and discuss it with them. 

From the outset, the books and films engage with the theme about how groups perceive each other as fundamentally less human, or “other,” a concept that is central to understanding how stigma operates.  We first encounter this in how Harry’s “Muggle” (or non-wizard) relatives sneer at the wizarding community (including Harry’s deceased parents), calling them “freaks.”  Particularly abhorrent to them is their oddness and nonconformity.  However, later on, we see how the wizarding community does the same thing, and that, in fact, the book’s archvillain Voldemort believes “Muggles”- and wizards of Muggle heritage, whom he calls "mudbloods"- to be inferior to “pure bloods,” or those descended from only wizards.  By presenting both sides of the issue, the book can help children understand how the stereotyping and “othering” process is not only committed by one side.  Learning to see beyond the “good guy” and “bad guy” dichotomy that stories often engage in can help children learn to see the complexity in people who are different from them, including people with mental illness.

As we get deeper into the book, topics which connect more clearly to mental illness also come up which provide good opportunity for discussion about stigma.  For example, in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," we meet Professor Lupin, who Harry and the other major characters become close to and learn a great deal from.  However, we eventually learn that Professor Lupin has a major secret which he takes great pains to hide- he periodically becomes a werewolf, and drinks a potion to prevent himself from undergoing a transformation which can place others at risk.  The mythical process of becoming a werewolf- Lycanthropy- is now largely understood to be a metaphor for the episodic transformation that people with bipolar disorder and episodic psychotic disorders experience.  The process of discrediting people who experience periodic episodes of symptoms, even when they occur infrequently and can be managed with treatment, is a hallmark of the stigma process.  Professor Lupin falls victim to this when he leaves the school at the end of the academic year after his secret is discovered.  Even though Harry insists that he is the “best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher we’ve ever had,” Lupin tells Harry that “parents...will not want their children taught by a werewolf.” Discussing how labeling and discrediting someone based on having a stigmatized status such as Professor Lupin can help children understand how this process occurs when people are “written off” after they have experienced psychiatric episodes.

Another area in which the books can help teach about stigma relates to the character of Harry’s classmate Neville Longbottom (this aspect only applies to the books).  In the first few books, we learn that Neville was raised by his grandmother because (it is implied) his parents were killed by one of Voldemort’s followers.  However, much later, we find Neville visiting his parents in the wizard equivalent of a psychiatric ward (known as St. Mungo’s), and we learn that Neville’s parents were actually driven insane by one of Voldemort’s followers.  Neville’s reluctance to divulge the (apparently shameful) reality that his parents are alive, but in a psychiatric hospital, illustrates the concept of associative stigma.  Associative stigma occurs when relatives or friends of a stigmatized person are concerned that they are tainted by their association with a stigmatized individual, experience shame, and avoid social interactions in which their association might come up.  Neville’s willingness to suggest that his parents are dead represents an extreme response to associative stigma, but not one that is completely unheard of.    For example, 10 year old Archibald Leach (later known as movie star Cary Grant) was told that his mother had left for a seaside resort, when she in fact had gone to a psychiatric hospital, where she remained for 20 years.  He did not find out the truth about where she was until he became an adult.       

These are only a few of the instances in which Harry Potter provides opportunities for helping to teach children about stigma.  However, the books are only likely to be effective as a teaching tool if parents experience the stories with their children and discuss them.  Doing so can help build a resistance to the influence of social influences that reinforce stigma.