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Post-‘Avatar’ Depression Is a Real Thing—But There Are Ways to Cope

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in 'Avatar'

Note: If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 to speak with a trained listener. You can also text HELLO to 741741.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now in theaters, and with it comes the possible resurgence of a 13-year-old phenomenon: Post-Avatar depression.

In 2009, when Avatar first came out, some moviegoers reported feeling depressed and even suicidal after being immersed in James Cameron’s spectacular digital world. According to CNN, fans reported that the real world felt grim after experiencing Avatar’s depiction of the lush forests of Pandora.

“One can say my depression was twofold,” said one fan, Ivar Hill. “I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality.”

In Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water, the Indigenous Na’vi live in harmony with nature, connecting to the plants and animals around them using sensory organs at the base of their skulls. The Na’vi are forced to defend their home when human colonizers try to strip the planet of its resources.

Related: How Long Did It Take to Make Avatar 2: The Way of Water? on The Escapist

Hill and other fans have sought refuge in online communities, including Kelutral, a Discord server launched in 2020 where fans talk about the films and learn the Na’vi language. Physicist Jacob Williamson told Variety that getting involved in Kelutral helped him find his way out of the worst of his depression. “I talked to my psychiatrist about it and she had a piece of advice I was not expecting: Let yourself do it. Stop trying to stop yourself,” says Williamson. “I watched Avatar repeatedly, delved into the language community and started learning Na’vi … After a week or so, it stopped. I’ve never had an incident since.”

How do you treat post-Avatar depression?

Mental health professionals stress that finding community, seeking professional help, and giving oneself permission to dive deep into Avatar fandom are valuable tools for people experiencing post-Avatar depression. For fans longing for the Na’vi’s connection to nature, though, getting out into the real natural world may be helpful.

I spoke to Lila Higgins, certified Forest Therapy guide and director of the Community Science program at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Forest therapy, based on the Japanese practice of forest bathing, helps people slow down and connect with the many more-than-human beings found in nature. Higgins acknowledges that if you’re not used to interacting with nature, it can be hard to know where to start—especially if you’re a city-dweller.

“For some people, the idea of going outside and connecting to nature is a big barrier to get over,” Higgins says. “They may need some assistance or guidance. But you can find a local group that connects with nature, whether it’s a forest therapy group, a nature center, or a natural history museum, and go on a walk with someone who’s an expert, and can help you ‘put your nature eyes on.'”

Even if your local nature walks don’t have the same eye-popping visuals as Pandora, the experience can still lift your mood. “A lot of research has been done about the benefits of breathing in the phytochemicals that trees emit,” Higgins says. “It helps reduce your heart rate, your blood pressure, and your cortisol levels. A lot of people feel really calm after a forest therapy walk.”

Of course, the importance of connecting to nature has long been known by Indigenous people. Potawatomi writer and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her seminal work Braiding Sweetgrass, writes that even the simplest acts of connection can help people heal from the grief and alienation that industrial capitalism and colonization have caused.

“People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people,” Kimmerer writes. “My answer is always, ‘plant a garden.’ It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence.”

Even the Na’vi’s emotional connection with Pandora’s Spirit Trees, the giant trees that grant access to Pandora’s planetary consciousness, aren’t as far removed from reality as Avatar fans might think. “A lot of people come out of forest therapy saying, ‘I really connected with that tree,'” says Higgins. “People come away feeling like the tree gave them a message.”

(featured image: 20th Century Studios)

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Julia Glassman (she/her) lives in Los Angeles, where she reads tarot and watches Marvel movies. You can check out more of her writing at linktr.ee/juliaglassman, or find her on Twitter at @juliaglassman.