WORCESTER – The affable sounding Sean Astin is known for his roles of resilience and everyday heroism, such as Samwise Gamgee in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Mikey Walsh in “The Goonies,” the title character in “Rudy,” and Bob Newby in Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
He is also an active advocate for mental health education and for ending the stigma of mental illness. Asked why he became involved in the cause of increasing mental health awareness, Astin had a two-word response: “My mother.”
Patty Duke (1946-2016) was a beloved actress who won an Academy Award, two Golden Globe Awards, and three Primetime Emmy Awards. She was also “really one of the first celebrity types to talk about bipolar disorder, or manic depression as it was known at that time,” Astin said.
“We watched her devote the second part of her life to advocacy, doing shows, speaking to Congress,” he said. “It’s just been about building on her legacy.”
Astin, who is also a director, voice artist and producer, will be interviewed live during the Shine Initiative’s virtual “In The Spotlight, an Un-Gala for Youth Mental Health” taking place from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Shine Initiative, 44 Portland St., is a nonprofit founded by Fidelity Bank in 2004 with input from its employees to combat discrimination and destigmatize mental health conditions in children and young adults.
“In the Spotlight, an Un-Gala for Mental Youth Health” will celebrate the accomplishments of the Shine Initiative while raising money to support the expansion of programs including Mindmatters Teams, which empower Massachusetts high school and middle school students to become mental wellness advocates in their schools. There are 48 student-led Mindmatters teams in Central Massachusetts high schools and middle schools, including 14 in Worcester.
The virtual event begins at 6:30 with special guests and Shining Lights awards, followed by a live interview with Astin.
Astin does a number of such events each year. “After ‘Lord of the Rings’ I became visible enough for people to want to invite me,” he said.
With his father, John Astin, also an actor (Gomez Addams in “The Addams Family”), he was acting from an early age and debuted in the 1981 television movie “Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom,” in which he played a child with an abusive mother, portrayed by his real-life mother. For his first feature film, he portrayed Mikey in Steven Spielberg’s classic “The Goonies” (1985).
The real-life home situation was “a house filled with a lot of love,” Astin said. But “there was a lot of trauma. I think I’m still processing it.”
He and his younger brother were home when his mother was going through her “most acute experiences.” A sensitive person, “she led an accelerated life. She was just an all-purpose emotional receptacle for the issues she came across. You add that (bipolar disease), there was a lot of tumult. Her own suicide attempts. We called them freak-outs. She would freak out for seemingly the littlest reason.”
With that, Astin said, his mother “was a beloved addition to wherever she was.”
And she felt some satisfaction in helping raise awareness through her memoirs and appearances talking about her mental illness, Astin said.
Astin feels he had a “a pretty pragmatic way of thinking and living” that has helped him connect to people. Initially, “it used to be purely destigmatizing the illness,” he said of his appearances to groups.
That has changed, as “it’s so much more commonly accepted that most people have issues. Now we’re extending the conversation so that people feel empowered. So that people feel there are resources available for them. It’s the conversations you have with people that really advance your confidence. I have to recognize that I’m not a medical expert, but I’ll be 50 in February so I think I have some observations and suggestions.”
But a change over the past seven months will likely prove to be a good deal less encouraging for the cause of mental heath, as the pandemic has numerous carryover effects.
“I think it certainly accelerated the need for organizations like Shine,” Astin said.
“The impact on collective mental health – we’ll be discussing the impact on that for a decade. It’s great that Shine has had a footprint in the community for years now.”
Viewing passes (tickets) for the Un-Gala are $25; $35 for two people at the same location; $45 for three people at the same location; and $55 for four people at the same location. They’re available at https://one.bidpal.net/inthespotlight/welcome