DESTIGMATIZING MENTAL HEALTH
Actor Sean Astin shared messages of inspiration, continuing his mother’s legacy
Rivaling pre-pandemic numbers with an audience of nearly 1,000 people, East Carolina University proudly welcomed actor, director, producer, triathlete and mental health advocate Sean Astin to campus on Nov. 16 for the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Voyages of Discovery Series.
Astin’s visit was true to the theme of this year’s Voyages season of “Inspiring Hope and Healing,” as he took the evening’s events in stride with charm and charisma, making multiple one-on-one connections with faculty, staff, students and community guests during his visit.
An alarm to evacuate the Main Campus Student Center during a special reception in Astin’s honor led to an impromptu photo and chat session with 100 enthusiastic guests on the lawn along 10th Street. Everyone was able to return inside about 30 minutes later.
Astin’s interactions throughout the evening touched the hearts of many, including a university staff member who received a heartfelt, personally recorded video from Astin to pass along to a family member who was not able to attend the events.
“Each year, Harriot College’s Voyages of Discovery series brings thought-provoking leaders to eastern North Carolina. This year’s theme of ‘Inspiring Hope and Healing’ feels particularly timely,” said Dr. Allison S. Danell, dean of Harriot College. “Presently, we are witnessing conflict, pain and suffering on a global scale. Whether we are personally impacted, love those impacted or merely struggle with the endless distressing images and stories delivered to our pockets each day, we know that hope and healing is sorely needed.”
With an acting career that has spanned four decades, Astin is recognized by many generations. Among more than 100 roles, Astin is known for his classic character of Samwise Gamgee in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy; as Bob Newby, a former high school friend and love interest to Winona Ryder’s character, Joyce Byers, in Season 2 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things;” as the beloved title character of “Rudy,” and as Mikey in the popular classic “The Goonies.”
Topics of discussion throughout the evening were split among Astin’s acting career as well as the causes he is passionate about, including civic engagement, education, literacy, fitness and above all, mental health awareness and advocacy.
Astin said he received great advice from his dad when he was auditioning for parts. His dad told him to “stop acting” and to be his natural self. Giving up control, as well as a little bit of luck, allowed him to earn many roles.
He said acting allows him to explore mentalities and worlds that can be difficult to navigate if you aren’t prepared for them. He fully embraces his roles and it can take him a long time to get out of character, which is something his wife of 32 years also noted when he was considering taking on the part of a drug addict.
Dr. Alan Christensen, chair of the Department of Psychology, who has said that mental health is relevant to everyone and that the stigma associated with it has declined significantly in recent years, moderated the 7 p.m. discussion.
“Access to mental health care and providers can be difficult and limited in eastern North Carolina, which makes the topic relevant to the area,” he said. “The takeaway is that we are all in this together, recognizing specifically that mental health is such a critical part of everyone’s life.”
Although well known for his acting, Astin said it is the other aspects and activities in his life that fulfill and inspire him, including earning his undergraduate degree in history, his current pursuit of a master of public administration and public policy degree, his long-distance running, participation in numerous triathlons, and his speaking engagements about mental health and its destigmatization. The latter stemmed from his late mother’s — 1960s actress Patty Duke — diagnosis, struggles and open conversation about her bipolar disorder. She subsequently dedicated her life’s work to advocating for mental health, a role Astin carries on today with his messages of acceptance, inclusion and empowerment for individuals dealing with mental illness.
“I do this because my mother did it before me. She realized her pain could help someone else,” said Astin. “It’s meaningful and I can’t imagine not doing it.”
He said people used to be scared to discuss mental health issues, but his mom “blew those doors open,” and she always made Astin and his siblings feel loved – that her issues were not their fault.
“I enjoyed seeing so many people participate in the Voyages of Discovery event. The Q&A format gave the night a relaxed environment; like you were sitting down with a friend,” said Andrea Menichelli, an economics staff member who attended the event. “Mr. Astin emphasized the importance of taking care of yourself first so that you can then help your loved one with mental illness. Embrace the fact that you could fail, to release the pressure on yourself.”
When asked what Astin wanted the audience to remember from his visit, he said, “I’m incredibly grateful you came out to hear about mental health. This night is just as important to me, as it is to you.”
“Our beloved series continues to challenge us, inviting us to learn from the real, lived experiences of incredible people and their real emotions, resilience and hope,” said Danell, who also said she was only “nerding out a little” that this event’s incredible person was Sean Astin. “I’m sure many people share the gratitude that I feel for the characters he’s portrayed and the wisdom and comfort they bring each of us in our own winding journeys through life.”
Ashley Harzog, director of alumni relations and outreach for Harriot College said, “One of the reasons we selected Sean Astin was because of his broad appeal.”
The evening’s events were co-hosted by Harriot College Dean’s Advancement Council member Harvey S. Wooten and the ECU College of Fine Arts and Communication, with additional support from many ECU and community and corporate sponsors.
On Jan. 18, Harriot College hopes to continue to inspire the community as it hosts Laurie Hernandez, U.S. Olympic gold and silver medal-winning gymnast, for the final event in the 2023-24 Voyages series. For additional information, visit the Voyages of Discovery website.