Sean Astin fighting the good fight for mental health advocacy
The “Lord of the Rings” star will be in Chicago next Sunday as guest speaker at a fundraiser for the mental health awareness non-profit No Shame on U.
Actor Sean Astin roots for the underdog.
And that means everyone when it comes to mental illness.
The actor known as Patty Duke’s son, and who portrayed Mikey in “The Goonies,” the lovable title character in “Rudy,” and Sam Gamgee in “Lord of the Rings,” wants Chicagoans to recognize they all have a say in advocating for the mentally ill.
“Everyone feels totally ill-equipped to deal with this issue, so you end up turning away from it as quickly as possible,” said Astin, who will be the featured speaker at a Nov. 3 fundraiser for No Shame on U, a Chicago-based mental-health awareness non-profit.
Miriam Ament, who was raised in Highland Park and lives in Rogers Park, founded No Shame on U five years ago, after she was hospitalized with depression and refused to give up as she sought expert help. She visited 15 therapists before finding one who fit her needs.
Ament said she was heartbroken when, during her second hospitalization over 16 years ago, one of her closest friends stopped talking to her.
“I thought, ‘I can’t tell anyone. If [one of my closest friends is] not going to be friends with me, how is anyone else?’” she said.
Ament, 48, said she overcame her silence after she won a charity auction that led her to have lunch with actress Glenn Close, a mental-health activist whose sister struggled with bipolar disorder.
“I realized, I can take this thing that’s been such a negative and has been so secretive — if I can tell [Glenn Close], a legend — then this is something that I do that will have an impact,” Ament said.
The No Shame on U website noshameonu.org offers resources, including a blog, podcasts, videos and links to social networks, and the organization hosts classes, workshops, screenings, support groups and drop-in meetings.
“No one should feel they are alone,” Ament said. “We want to help end the mental-health stigma.”
Astin said people’s first instinct might be “that the people in need of help shouldn’t be ashamed to get help.
“But I say everyone else shouldn’t feel ashamed to participate — even if you’re perfectly healthy,” he said. “It shouldn’t be just about the shame.”
Astin, 48, whose adoptive father is actor John Astin of “The Addams Family” television series fame, aims to advance the conversation around mental illness — an excruciatingly painful issue that touches us all — by building upon his late mother’s advocacy work.
Duke, a child star who became the youngest person at the time (1963) to win a best supporting actress Oscar for portraying Helen Keller in the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker,” wrote two books detailing her struggle with bipolar disorder. (She played identical cousins of opposite personalities on her eponymous TV sitcom.)
“To be fair, she put her reputation in jeopardy a lot of times before she was able to get control over herself, learn coping mechanisms and get the medicine and the kinds of therapy she needed,” Astin said.
His was a chaotic upbringing, but Astin emerged compassionate because his mother was so contrite after an outburst and he understood how deeply people loved and were moved by Duke.
“She was loved by everyone she ever touched,” he said. “She would take photos [with her fans], sign autographs. We understood and appreciated it. We liked it. It was part of our life.”
Yet, before Duke’s bipolar diagnosis and treatment, Astin recalled how, if a waiter made a mistake serving his mother’s order at a restaurant, she would speed home, sometimes driving erratically, and then cry, scream and break things.
“There was nothing you could say to stop it,” Astin said. “No matter how funny, clever or compassionate or angry you [reacted], the cycle was going to play itself out.”
In the same way, Astin urges others to “lean in” and speak compassionately to their friends, family, co-workers and others if they see that the person needs help.
“Sufferer is an incredibly suppressive word,” he said. And using accusatory language causes defensiveness.
“[Instead], it’s really easy to identify what’s right in other’s behavior; to give a compliment,” Astin said. “People need confidence that the world in which they’re working on themselves is caring and thoughtful.”
Caregivers, friends and others who support the mentally ill must brace themselves for the possibility that nothing they say may change anything. Trying to help others is extremely complicated, Astin said.
“By bracing ourselves for potential ‘so-called failure,’ not only are we protecting our own hearts, but the immediate focus can be on the person who is struggling, which may be a helpful beginning.”
Astin speaks at mental-health treatment centers and organizations nationwide, but Chicago has a special place in his heart.
His wife and soulmate of 27 years, Christine, grew up in LaPorte, Indiana, where her dad was a firefighter and her step-mother a factory worker.
“We have each other,” Astin said of his wife. “Finding relationships you can count on is really important.”
The couple has three children: Ali, a recent Harvard University graduate; Elizabeth, and Isabella.
Astin recalled one of his trips from O’Hare International Airport to LaPorte to visit Christine’s ailing grandfather in the hospital. A nurse recognized him, threw her arms around him, and told him that Patty Duke’s autobiography saved her father’s life.
The end goal is to ensure people with mental-health needs get affordable, quality care so they can see doctors and get medication if they need it, Astin said.
“That should be a fundamental right for an advanced civilization,” he said.
Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.