School Board using Harry Potter to relieve mental stress

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The Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario [CDSBEO] have introduced a new element into their program to handle mental stress in students: Harry Potter, specifically, the novel “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. It is based on bringing together the principles of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and a novel with which students in Grades 7 and 8 would relate.

In a presentation to the CDSBEO Board Meeting held on November 20, Claire Dulmage, Psychological Associate with Board, spoke about the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Novel Study project.

“The project infuses the principles of CBT within a novel study. It’s designed for students who are in grade 7 and 8, and that’s because Harry Potter, in this novel, is 13 years of age – so it creates an opportunity to maximize identification of the characters for the students.”

The Board issued a statement which pointed out that: “Over the last three years the Board has developed a teacher resource full of lesson plans and other activities, which also highlights the specific components of cognitive behavioural therapy that students will learn as they study the novel. The students study the novel through a CBT lens, and learn from Harry what it means to become depressed and anxious.”

Angela Bingley, Lead CBT – Harry Potter Teacher, explained the benefits of the program through a video testimonial. “The project is helpful to student mental health because it allows them to disassociate with the “me” aspect – it’s about Harry, it’s about Hermione, it’s about Ron, and we can talk about all of their dealings with anxiety and depression.”

The Board believes that the approach is an innovative and experiential way to learn about mental distress and how to overcome it. The novel study teaches improved mental literacy and resilience, an understanding of the right strategies to help overcome distress, and application of these strategies.

“The project is preventative and is presented before the occurrence of later mental health problems. Students can relate to the characters in the book, and can learn about the things Harry is going through, and the strategies that he applies in dealing with his distress,” added Claire Dulmage.

The basic approach of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is to recognise that thoughts, emotions and behaviours influence and impact each other. According to one of the more respected works on the subject, CBT is considered a step forward in the treatment of mental stress and other disorders, particularly in young people. When compared to psychoactive medications, review studies have found CBT alone to be as effective for treating less severe forms of depression and anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), tics, substance abuse, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder. It is often recommended in combination with medications for treating other conditions, such as severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and major depressive disorder, opioid use disorder, bipolar disorder and psychotic disorders. In addition, CBT is recommended as the first line of treatment for majority of psychological disorders in children and adolescents, including aggression and conduct disorder.

Applying this to the school situation at the CDSBEO, teacher training around the project included an overview of how the chapters are studied through a CBT lens, and seven CBT principles that are addressed throughout the novel. Teachers were provided with optional lesson plans and activities to help support the learning throughout the novel study. In each section of the novel, key learning goals are presented, and students have an opportunity to learn about and normalize stress and anxiety. In addition, students develop skills and strategies to help deal with their own stress and anxiety, including the development of a “stressbuster toolkit.”

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