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Actor Astin says he ‘lived through hell’; at Penn State, he discusses mental illness of mom Patty Duke

By Laura Hayes

Posted 10/23/19

He carried Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom in “The Lord of the Rings.” He led his friends on a search for One-Eyed Willy’s treasure in “The Goonies.” He was superhero …

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Actor Astin says he ‘lived through hell’; at Penn State, he discusses mental illness of mom Patty Duke


He carried Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom in “The Lord of the Rings.” He led his friends on a search for One-Eyed Willy’s treasure in “The Goonies.” He was superhero Bob Newby in “Stranger Things” who saved everyone when a pack of Demodogs was unleashed in Hawkins Lab.

But on Thursday, actor Sean Astin was at Penn State Harrisburg to talk about mental health and growing up as the son of actress and mental health advocate Patty Duke.   

“I’m here because of my mother. My mother suffered for half of her life with bipolar disorder, and she dedicated a huge portion of her life to traveling around the country speaking and being a mental health advocate on a national platform,” Astin said in an interview with the Press & Journal before his speech. She passed away in 2016.

Astin’s talk was organized by the campus Diversity and Educational Equity Committee.

Co-chairwoman Ali Moyer said the committee decided to focus its fall programming on mental health. Astin’s name was thrown out a year ago, but Moyer said the committee thought he was a perfect fit for their programs this year.

“He’s very friendly in nature. He knows how to interact with people in a positive way. He’s a shining light,” Moyer said.

The Mukund S. Kulkarni Theatre was packed with fans wearing “Stranger Things” T-shirts and carrying copies of “Lord of the Rings” and “Rudy” for Astin to sign.

Stephanie Morrow, who teaches at Penn State Harrisburg, brought her 10-year-old daughter, Abigail.

“Sean Astin is the one actor who spans both of our generations. I grew up with ‘Goonies,’ ‘Rudy’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’. She knows him from ‘Stranger Things’,” Morrow said.

Senior Erin LaMora was in line for Astin’s lecture about an hour before it started — in part because she likes him as an actor and also because she cares about the topic he was going to discuss.

“A lot of people suffer from mental illness. They don’t see mental issues as the same as physical issues,” she said.

Astin brought a prepared 5,000-word speech, but he opted to, as he put it, “get real” and speak.

“I think the most impactful thing that I can do, as a person who was raised in a family with somebody with a mental health issue is speak my truth as clearly, directly as possible,” Astin said.

He shared his story and listened to audience members’ share theirs. He offered tips and observations, although he cautioned he wasn’t a medical professional.

“I wouldn’t change my life. I would change some of it — if her suffering could be diminished, if some of the real trauma could be avoided, I would. On balance, my life and my childhood — I love my life. I loved my childhood. I love my family. I love — even going through the crucible experiences made me who I am today. So, I don’t disavow that,” Astin said.

His mother’s life, talent, experiences and turmoil have “animated” his life, Astin said. Astin said he had an advantage — Duke loved him and he never felt like it was his fault.

When he was in his early teens, Duke was diagnosed as having a bipolar mood disorder.

The family knew, and she met the symptoms, Astin said.

“As her kids, we were on the business end of a lot of that drama,” Astin said.

His family called them her “freak-outs.”

“I lived through physical abuse, mental abuse. We lived through suicide attempts. We lived through the spending sprees, the crippling guilt, the irrational behavior, the crying and screaming and uncertainty. We lived through hell,” Astin said.

Duke, he said, embraced her diagnosis “with the fervor of a monk and the bombast of a televangelist.” She saw it as a second lease on her reputation, Astin said.

She had done things on set, in public and around family members that were uncomfortable, he said. She could be described as fiery or dynamic, but Astin said “unstable” was the clinical and accurate way to describe what she did.

She saw it as a “get out of jail free card,” he said, with a pill she could take that made everything better.

On one hand it was amazing, Astin said. His mother became a celebrity expert, and she broke down barriers. She wasn’t well-equipped for the journey at the beginning, but Astin said she still helped people.

“Over time I think I learned how to really see the value in what my mom accomplished, and to see how she improved. Her later life was much, much better. She developed a wellness strategy. She took walks. She enjoyed the sunlight. … She was just happier and more comfortable. The depression persisted through to the end of her life, but she was willing to talk about it,” Astin said.

When his mother grew up, mental illness looked like padded rooms and electroshock therapy, Astin said, but now anyone can go to CVS to pick up medication.

“People are comfortable talking about the concept of mental illness in a way that is more ready and accessible and a part of our experience,” he said.

Psychiatry, medication and services have come so far, but stigma still stops the conversation surrounding mental health, he said.

He attributed it in part to the language used, which he said the psychiatric community mostly uses for itself and not for others. Even the phrase “mental health” others the person it is describing, he said, even if the intention is healthy.

It’s a hard issue to talk about without feeling judgmental — both, he said, to one’s self and others. You have to protect yourself if you have a loved one with mental health issues because you may not be able to help that person, he said.

Mental health issues can feel like a life sentence where you don’t know if it will be like this forever, he said. Nutrition, fitness, and sleep can help, he said.

Mental health is uncertain.

“What we do when we get to that uncertain moment is we shut down,” Astin said.

The work to destigmatize mental illness is “embracing the discovery of that uncertainty and saying to yourself it’s OK if I have limitations about how much energy I can give to this or at the very least recognize I’m out of gas right now. I can’t do this right now,” he said.

Then you can be more useful in the times that you can focus, he said.