Actor Sean Astin discusses mom Patty Duke’s mental illness while visiting Lincoln

Evelyn Mejia Lincoln Journal Star

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LINCOLN — As Sean Astin watched the crowd of about 1,000 people Thursday at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, he reminded them that while mental illness is ugly, there is also beauty.

“Everything about my mom is hope,” said Astin, the son of actress Patty Duke and a film and television actor himself. “All about her experiences, her courage, her determination, her resilience and her ability to try to forgive herself.”

Astin was the featured speaker at Bryan Health’s Mental Health Care Show.

Best known for his roles in ‘The Goonies’, ‘Rudy’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, Astin made his acting debut at age 8.

He played the role of a child with an abusive mother – played by Duke – in “Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom”.

“My whole life is like this series of contradictions,” Astin said. “I’m on this show where she beats me up, and I’m uncomfortable because it hits a little bit close to home. Yet at the same time, you know it helps other people see this issue represented. on the television.”

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Astin’s half-hour presentation, which coincided with Mental Health Awareness Week, delved into the stigma of mental health and her experience growing up with a mother with mental illness.

By age 16, Patty Duke had won an Oscar for her portrayal of Helen Keller in the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker.” The following year, Duke landed his own television series, “The Patty Duke Show”. Despite his professional success, Duke’s personal life was marred by tragedy. As a young adult, Duke attempted to distance himself from his teenage bopper image, getting involved in numerous affairs and indulging in drugs and alcohol. Her behavior became increasingly erratic, and in the 1980s, the actress was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. With treatment, Duke was able to lead a stable life until his death in 2016.


For most of Astin’s tumultuous childhood, his mother suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which he says affected their family dynamics. Duke, who won an Academy Award and three Emmy Awards, was diagnosed with the disorder in 1982.

Astin says his mother’s diagnosis comforted everyone, including his mother.

“My mum was thrilled when she was diagnosed because she felt like she could put the bad behavior into words,” he said.

But Astin said with his joy came fear.

“She didn’t know if they were going to put her in a straitjacket. She was afraid of electroconvulsive therapy,” he said.

Astin invited audiences to think about mental health issues — and how they might manifest — in daily life.

For more than 20 years, Astin has built on her mother’s legacy of mental health advocacy by sharing her experiences to help de-stigmatize her.

“When she shared her story, other people felt grateful knowing they weren’t alone,” he said. “It felt like the pain was some kind of weird, horrible price she had to pay to get to that defensive position.”

Astin concluded his program with a line from his role in “The Lord of the Rings.”

“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, full of darkness and danger,” he said. “…You don’t want to know the ending because how could the ending be happy? How could the world go back to how it was when so much bad happened?

“But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.”

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