Can a Harry Potter-Themed Wellbeing Program Help Middle Schoolers Cope?

A school-based, Harry Potter-themed and CBT-informed program for middle schoolers enhances wellbeing and reduces suicidality.

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Whether or not you have read or enjoyed J. K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books, you have probably heard of them. In a recent study harnessing the undeniable popularity of the series, Paula Klim-Conforti and a team of Canadian researchers examined the impact of a school-based, Harry Potter-informed therapeutic intervention. They found improvements in well-being and depressive, anxious, and suicidal symptomology among middle school students.

Klim-Conforti and her colleagues conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) comprising 46 classrooms across 15 schools to evaluate the program – characterized by elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and embedded into the standard English curriculum – within a large urban school district. English teachers were trained to implement the program and served as interventionists, and all participating classrooms were divided into intervention and control groups. Promising benefits were observed across a spectrum of outcomes evaluated in this study, especially among female participants, although the spread of COVID-19 interfered with the timeline and scope of the project.

“This controlled study prospectively examined a teacher delivered, Harry Potter-based CBT skills intervention. While several school-based programs exist that derive from CBT, this is the first intervention which embeds both basic CBT psychoeducation, resilience, and coping skills within a literature unit that is taught within the language arts curriculum.”

Rates of anxiety and depression appear to be increasing among youth. One recent study identified a 52% increase in past-year experience of a major depressive episode among adolescents between 2005 and 2017. Although abundant research has raised concerns regarding how these data are elicited and interpreted, and frameworks overemphasizing individual-level contributors to distress compared to social determinants have been critiqued, it has been well documented that many young people experience depression, anxiety, and varying degrees of suicidal ideation.

For many young people, particularly those situated in economically vulnerable homes and communities, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on health and exacerbated symptoms associated with mood disorders. The scope of distress speaks to the potential for universal prevention and intervention programming offered within accessible spaces (e.g., schools) to support young people in general, not only tailored for groups and individuals experiencing borderline clinical symptoms. Teens, in general, could benefit from resources promoting connection and strategies to facilitate increases in social and emotional wellbeing.

“It is generally accepted that life stress and deficits in coping skills are key antecedents of suicide (Brent et al. 2011; Seguin et al. 2014). Yet, suicide prevention efforts in youth often fail to address these factors at a level that is developmentally appropriate. Therefore, a scalable, feasible and effective, early, universal prevention intervention addressing these factors is urgently needed.”

Harry Potter books, exploring themes such as friendship, ethics, community, and coping with adversity, have held nearly a quarter-century multigenerational appeal. The allure of the series has been sustained through the introduction of movies, theme parks, and other renovations within the “Potterverse.” Informally, outside of organized therapeutic programming, the presence and lessons of Harry Potter have helped many young people through life’s challenges.

The Harry Potter-based, CBT-oriented three-month intervention outlined in Klim-Conforti and the team’s study formally integrates many of the themes that have most resonated with fans over the years. Specifically, “middle school-aged youth learn [from engaging with the text, their teachers, and discussion about] how both the protagonist and author (J.K. Rowling) learn to be resilient when faced with depression and anxiety. Portrayals of mastery over distress are emphasized in the intervention with direct examples taken from the novel using various characters who exemplify resilience and coping.”

Although the program targets the reduction of diverse characteristics associated with internalizing and mood concerns in young people, the primary objective is suicide prevention. The inclusion of the general student population, not only a targeted group, was a unique feature of this RCT.

“School-based interventions that impart CBT and enhance resilience and coping, while doing so through an engaging, developmentally appropriate narrative may augment suicide prevention efforts.”

Before Klim-Conforti and colleagues’ study was conducted across 15 schools, it had been previously piloted to gauge feasibility and had a good result. In preparation for the large-scale study, teachers interested in study participation were exposed to orientation to the three-month curriculum, including the following ingredients:

“Training consisted of an overview of CBT with specific emphasis on core principles, CBT techniques and models as it specifically relates to depression and anxiety, an overview of the research literature pertaining to suicide and mental health literacy, the role of resilience, learning modules were discussed by book chapter (see “Intervention” above for details), an overview was provided of the research design, and time was allotted for consolidation and discussion of implementation lessons that we learned from the pilot study.”

A total of 200 middle school students aged 11-14 were granted parental permission to participate in the intervention group, and an additional 230 made up the wait-list control condition. Participants in both conditions completed measures pre-and post-intervention to assess suicidality (treated in this study as a composite measure of self-reported suicidal ideation and attempts), self-reported emotion dysregulation, interpersonal chaos, confusion about self, impulsivity, and self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms. T-tests were conducted to compare changes across classrooms and between conditions.

“For those who received it, the intervention diminished suicidality in middle school youth. Sub-analysis showed specifically that the intervention significantly reduced suicidal ideation with no effect on suicide attempts. This supports the idea that the intervention may have more acute effects on cognition than behavior. However, youth suicide is a complex and rare phenomenon, and identification of meaningful reductions in suicide attempts, as well as self-harm, may require more detailed observation over a longer timescale.”

Additional significant effects were seen in reduced interpersonal chaos, improved emotional regulation, and reduced confusion about the self among intervention group members. Despite authors’ acknowledgment of a smaller-than-intended sample resulting in reduced power, results indicate promise in integrating staples of CBT to promote social and emotional wellbeing among students in a classroom setting using literature with contemporary appeal. This approach’s universal and embedded nature makes Klim-Conforti and colleagues’ work particularly exciting and ripe for future application in schools.

 

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Klim-Conforti, P., Zaheer, R., Levitt, A. J., Cheung, A. H., Schachar, R., Schaffer, A., Goldstein, B., Fefergrad, M., Niederkrotenthaler, T., & Sinyor, M. (2021). The Impact of a Harry Potter-Based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Skills Curriculum on Suicidality and Well-being in Middle Schoolers: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 286, 134–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2021.02.028 (Link)

11 COMMENTS

  1. I sure wish the grown up psychologists and psychiatrists would stop experimenting and preying upon other people’s children. Especially since none of your DSM disorders are valid diseases. And the antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, that you’re hoping to get the children on, are neurotoxins.

    I’m not a big Harry Potter person, but I think Harry Potter is about witches and warlocks. And I’m not so certain that is the type stuff that should be promoted in the schools.

  2. It’s just trading one fantasy for another and it would be difficult to predict both short term and long range outcomes. However, children are innocent and vulnerable and like their adult counterparts, they should not be considered just objects for the whims of experimentation. CBT is dangerous for adults and couple this with the fantasy of Harry Potter or other like-minded books, and the experimenters may get more than the bargained for. I say, “Be Careful what you wish for, ” but please stop wishing on the children of the world. Thank you.

  3. I’m a big Harry Potter fan and I do think it can be helpful to people. But I don’t understand why they treat these things like experiments, those kids the subjects (a.k.a lab rats) and publish papers regarding this sort of stuff? Can’t they just be ordinary human beings and tell their peers, “You know, children love Harry Potter and they were very engaged and felt better when used Harry Potter, Ron Weasley etc. as examples to teach them to cope with life”.

    Imagine setting up a place where a queue of poor people line up for food and then you publish a paper with scientistic jargon on it like those homeless people are an experiment.

    “A total of 200 homeless individuals aged 40-60 were granted societal permission to participate in the intervention group, and an additional 230 made up the wait-list to stand in the queue for food. Participants in both conditions completed measures pre-and post-intervention to assess suicidality (treated in this study as a composite measure of self-reported suicidal ideation and attempts), self-reported emotion dysregulation, interpersonal chaos, confusion about self, impulsivity, and self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms. T-tests were conducted to compare changes across various queues of homeless people and between conditions.”

    This is what is the difference between helping a human being like another human being and being a “professional”. Journals have their place, but not like this.

    It is appalling that this is what “science” has come to. It is also worse that there are so many members in society these days (“intellectuals”) who have become programmed to understand only this sort of language in place of any natural human understanding.

    • All too true! I’m tired of hiking being called “nature therapy,” or expressing oneself through artistic media being called “art therapy,” or meditating on the meaning and purpose of existence being called “mindfulness therapy.” Some things are just good things to do. I would hate to think they will turn Harry Potter into “fantasy fiction therapy” instead of just being a good read!

      • What’s next? Little Women Therapy for sisters… Old Yeller Therapy for those who’ve lost a beloved pet…Godfather Therapy for family issues…well, when anything and everything becomes therapy it, then makes therapy useless—AAH! It already is!…But, please lets’ stop fostering this mindless uselessness upon our innocent children. I know that in the Bible, Jesus reprimands those who seek to cause the little ones to suffer- I think it’s something about a millstone, but due to the drugs and therapies, I even get the Bible Verses I learned in Sunday School mixed up. But God and Jesus forgive. The Neighborhood Psychiatrist doesn’t. His or her only way to deal with any situation of the human condition is through drugs and drugs mixed with the concept of scheduled therapies and that all of life should be one humongous utensil of therapy. Thank you.

          • No! I am just joking! However, it seems that they want to “therapize” everything. This has got to stop! Like I said in some comments I made on other articles various times. One moment of rare enlightenment, a big lightbulb blew up in my head! When it did, I realized the title or word, “therapist” can be written as “the-rapist.” I do not think this is a another word I can spell or can no longer spell. I think this is the real honest truth hidden in the word. Of course, “therapy” is just “the-rape” with the “y” taking the place of the “e” which can happen sometimes; although, it is usually “y” and “i” that inter-change themselves. Thank you.

  4. Actually, we need to quit the fantasyland of trying to teach people of all ages how to cope. Oh, but isn’t the Harry Potter series classified in the genre of fantasy. Coping is a lie. We are not put on earth to just cope. We need to learn how to be free and live; even it hurts, because hurt is only temporary. It only goes beyond the temporary into the realm of permanent when we settle for coping, which is just a euphemism for safety or the new normal. We need to teach the children of today the power of Patrick Henry when he said “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death.” Then, they will be free to live and will not need to settle for the lie of coping which will eventually lead to death, maybe premature or untimely, but no liberty. I’d rather fly like a bird without an airplane than sink into oblivion like the Loch Ness Monster. Thank you.

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