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“I Can Carry You”: Sean Astin carries on his mother’s legacy as a mental health advocate

In his lecture, Sean Astin touched on his mother Patty Duke’s struggles with Bipolar disorder and how COVID-19 has impacted mental health.
In his lecture, Sean Astin touched on his mother Patty Duke’s struggles with Bipolar disorder and how COVID-19 has impacted mental health.

The seats of Hall Auditorium filled with Miami University students and community members on Monday night to see the final lecture of this year’s University Lecture Series, given by actor, producer and activist Sean Astin. 

Astin, known for his roles in “The Goonies,” “Rudy,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Stranger Things,” gave a talk titled “I Can Carry You: Destigmatizing Mental Health.” In addition to his own work, Astin is also famed as the son of John Astin and Academy Award-winning actress Patty Duke, who was open about her struggles with Bipolar disorder.

Duke died in 2016, but Astin carries on her legacy as an advocate for mental health awareness. 

The lecture started at 7:30 p.m. with a video montage of clips from Astin’s most famous roles. Following the tribute, Astin walked onstage and was met with a roaring crowd. 

Astin threw a “Lord of the Rings” joke into the beginning of the lecture and acknowledged that many people were probably just there to see the “hobbit guy,” but made sure to clarify his goal.

“I am here to talk about mental health – mental health advocacy and helping destigmatize mental illness,” Astin said. “[But] I'll try and layer in a few potato-type things as we go along.”

When his mother was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in the early ’80s, Astin said she feared being put into a straight-jacket or a padded white room. Today, he said the challenge is the way mental health is discussed, specifically within institutions. 

“As much as [hospitals and the psychiatric community are] helping, you actually do a lot of things that hurt,” Astin said. “The way you talk about it, the way you act towards people who have depression or anxiety – there's ways in which there's a lack of humility in the professional space towards people dealing with issues.”

Astin’s talk was originally scheduled for spring 2020, but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Having given speeches about mental health since 2000, this was his first talk since 2020. 

“Being back in a room with people, I think it’s an opportunity for me to try and make real some of the concepts that I’ve been working with over the last couple years,” he said in an interview with The Miami Student.

After two years of isolation due to the pandemic, Astin said it’s more important than ever to prioritize communication.

“If we've learned nothing since COVID-19 started, it’s that the ability to communicate with each other means so much,” Astin said to The Student. “It means for our health, our happiness, our community.”

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Astin said his 92-year-old father, who was born during the Great Depression, thought COVID-19 was “worse by a mile” than anything he experienced 62 years ago. 

“In that time, you could help people,” Astin said to The Student. “You could give them a hug. You could bring them something to eat, and everyone was experiencing this bad thing, but you were experiencing it together in person. Now, here's this thing where the most generous thing you can do is stay away from everyone … Every single person you see, if you venture out of your house, is a potential threat to your life.”

Astin said everyone has faced some kind of mental health issues these past two years. 

“Mental health and mental health challenges touch everyone,” he said. “If it’s not you personally, maybe it’s in your immediate family … your extended family, your fellow students, your colleagues.”

Astin then turned his attention to his mother and described his childhood. Although he detailed assault and abuse from his younger years, he emphasized that Duke was a good mother. 

“My mother was an extraordinary mother,” Astin said. “There are things that she did for me as a mother that set me up for my whole life, so it's not really hard for me to talk about the bad things because I fully processed them.” 

He outlined his mom’s childhood, which included physical and verbal abuse. By the time she had Astin, things were so bad that he was the only thing keeping her alive. 

“The way she's talked about it, I – the existence of a baby – kept her alive,” Astin said. “I gave her meaning and purpose.” 

As a child, Astin said he was threatened with scissors, beaten with a stick and forced to watch multiple suicide attempts, among other things, all at the hands of his mother. Ironically, he said, the start of his career was starring alongside his mother in an after-school special titled “Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom.”

When Duke was finally diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in the ’80s, after several years of suffering, Astin said she accepted the diagnosis with gratitude. He said she made it her life mission to take the taboo away from mental health issues and by doing so, help others who may be struggling. 

Jennifer Leitch, a sophomore middle childhood education major, said she came to the lecture to hear someone so prominent talk about his experience with mental health. 

“There's a lot [on] social media that doesn't really talk about mental health,” Leitch said. “It's good to hear that someone who is so well known has gone through real world experiences and issues that people go through every day.

Joelah Marcum, a sophomore economics major, said that although the lecture discussed an important subject, it left her wanting more.

“That’s a good start, but it's not a good place to finish,” Marcum said. “I didn't feel like there were a lot of answers, but it’s good to start the conversation at least.” 

Piper Nicely, a first-year journalism and creative writing major, said she was more than satisfied with the lecture. 

“It was really inspiring,” she said. “He really is kind of Samwise Gamgee in your life.”

Before the question-and-answer portion of the lecture, Astin outlined his rules for helping someone in need. 

First, he said to protect yourself at all times. He likened this to being a lifeguard – you’re swimming out to help someone in need, but make sure they don’t take you down with them. 

Second, listen without judgment. There are many professional places to go for help, he said, but be a listening ear for a friend in need. 

Finally, make sure you listen without making it about yourself. 

“This [is a] person who you've identified as being in need right now,” he said. ”It can't be about you.”

Overall, Astin said he is grateful the stigmatization around mental health has been knocked down. 

“I know that [the taboo has] changed,” he said. “And thank goodness, because it really needs to change because now the issue is as intense as it's ever been.”