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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Actor Sean Astin returns to Spokane to advocate for mental health, following mother Patty Duke’s lead: ‘That was her superpower’

From left, Corey Feldman, Sean Astin, Ke Huy Quan and Jeff Cohen star in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film “The Goonies.”  (Warner Bros.)

Actor Sean Astin is visiting Spokane to speak at a Women Helping Women fundraising event, and for the “Lord of the Rings” and “Stranger Things” actor, it’s a homecoming.

As a teen, he traded his Los Angeles “city boy” life for a motorcycle and an 80-acre ranch in the Coeur d’Alene area in the late 1980s with his mother, Patty Duke, and stepfather. Despite never visiting since, imprinted in his memory is the view of the Spokane skyline driving east on Interstate 90: the brick buildings of downtown, the sweeping Monroe Street Bridge, hospitals climbing up the South Hill all framed by towering ponderosa pine trees iconic to the area.

“You get to know the pine trees are the gateway to the Northwest,” Astin said. “I remember it well.”

Duke, the Oscar-winning actress seen in “The Miracle Worker” and “Valley of the Dolls” who died in 2016, often performed at the Spokane Civic Theatre. Off the silver screen and stage, Duke was also an activist who worked to destigmatize mental illness. Through her life, she used her fame to speak openly of her bipolar disorder diagnosis, hoping that these conversations would destigmatize mental illness and comfort others with the disorder with the knowledge they’re not alone.

“Being empowered through her own pain and her own willingness to kind of take a public stance and to be responsive when people send her stuff – that was her superpower,” Astin said. “It nourished her and nourished her soul to be able to give back.”

In honor of his mother’s legacy, Astin is the featured speaker at the Women Helping Women Fund’s 32nd annual Give Like a Woman fundraising event on Wednesday. The organization encourages philanthropy, coordinating volunteer and donation opportunities in Spokane; last year’s event raised $175,000, doled out to several nonprofits and scholarships for local women.

While not a woman , Astin was compelled to speak at the event to follow in his mother’s footsteps and raise awareness surrounding mental health, greasing the wheels of an important conversation to destigmatize mental illness.

“People then invariably feel a little bit more empowered to share their story or reach out and help other people or at least operate in their community with a little bit of a boost, a little bit of something that they didn’t have beforehand,” Astin said.

Duke’s bipolar disorder was present in Astin’s childhood, and the two long discussed openly how it affected their lives. Astin recalls abuse, his mother’s suicide attempts and moments of extreme depression and mania.

“Bipolar is a tricky one because it includes some pretty great behaviors. It includes, in my mom’s case, spectacular creativity and charisma and generosity,” Astin said. “My childhood was, in many ways, about extremes, positive and negative. I don’t find myself mourning or regretting the painful parts, because I feel like over time I’ve been able to contextualize them and process them.”

While mental illness is still a debilitating societal problem, especially on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, Astin has also seen an exponential jump in resources available to those afflicted and their families. He’s seen this shift especially since his mother’s diagnosis in the 1980s, when mental illness felt more like something to be feared than addressed with empathy.

But open conversations are critical to keep momentum, he said, encouraging people to take responsibility for their words and actions and approach the topic with understanding and compassion for others’ experiences.

“It’s amazing how little things that we say or don’t say might contribute to an environment that allows them to start to find the help they need,” Astin said.