Sean Astin

Sean Astin, known for his role in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, gave the closing keynote at the Impact Summit on May 1. Astin’s speech focused on being open about mental health.

Missouri State University designated May 1 as this year’s Impact Summit College Student Mental Health Conference, a day focused on destigmatizing the conversation around mental health.

This year, the question posed to conference attendees was “What do an actor and a Yale professor have in common?” This question called upon two keynote speakers, assistant clinical professor at Yale, Nance Roy, and American film actor Sean Astin.

Roy’s opening keynote was centered around mental health initiatives, crisis management and delivery of care for college students. The closing keynote included Astin’s personal stories and observations related to mental health.

Graduate assistant Jeremiah Halbert, who helped plan the Impact Summit, said Roy’s speech discussed how to identify someone going through a mental health crisis and different ways higher education professionals can set their campus up for those individuals to succeed.

During Astin’s closing keynote, he asked audience members to raise their hands if they were fans of Comic Con, and jokingly responded to an audience member who raised her hand with a quote that blanketed the day’s topic of discussion.

“I don’t judge you. That’s the whole exercise today. We judge each other less,” Astin said.

In efforts to start a dialogue about student mental health, the conference also scheduled educational breakout sessions throughout the day dedicated to sparking conversations about various topics pertaining to mental health.

“Our main goal this year was to schedule the sessions in each block accordingly so that there was a variety of sessions for people to go to,” Halbert said.

One breakout session, titled “Mindful Spirits,” addressed ways students can use mindfulness to treat substance abuse.

Presenters Calli Romero and Rhonda Ferguson shared that binge drinking is a common coping mechanism for college students dealing with stress and anxiety.

They said it often leads to more problems such as academic failure, memory issues or failing relationships with family and friends.

“When we talk about mindfulness in terms of focusing internally, less on your five senses, when you’re paying attention to what’s going on in your mind, what’s coming up for you, what you’re feeling, it’s just allowing yourself to be where you’re at without trying to change it or judge it,” Romero said.

Ferguson and Romero pointed out that mindfulness leads to improved emotional well-being, social function, and reduces stress and other negative emotions.

Students, practitioners, instructors and counselors from the Counseling Center all joined in on the conversation with some audience members pointing out apps like “Calm,” used for meditation, that can aid in being more mindful.

Other breakout sessions included “Understanding the Effects of Trauma-Based Moral Injury” presented by Tommy Goode, “What Parents Need to Know about Athletes and Mental Health” presented by Priscilla Childress and Mary Jane Holmes, and “The Impact of Social Media Usage on Missouri State University Student’s Mental Health” presented by McKenzie Mathewson.

Throughout the day-long conference, Missouri State students also served on panels to talk about their own experiences with mental health.

In a press release from the university, Dean of Students Thomas Lane said the summit’s purpose was to leave attendants with a better understanding of mental health concerns and the best strategies for college students who are dealing with them.

Presentations like Ferguson and Romero’s aimed to accomplish this.

“Some students feel that what they’re feeling is normal. They think it’s normal to be this stressed, and then, they don’t seek help,” Romero said.

Kathy Rigger with Speak Up Springfield hopes that after attending the Impact Summit, students who are struggling with mental health know there is help and that they should reach out.

She said she believes that the key to destigmatizing the conversation around mental health is by starting the conversation, despite how uncomfortable it might be.

Other organizations in the community also showed their support for mental health awareness by setting up tables in the Plaster Student Union and sharing their organization’s goals.

An exhibit called “It Knows No Face” was also featured at the Impact Summit, and it was comprised of photography from founder of 7 Billion Ones, Randy Bacon.

The photographs included portraits of suicide survivors and family members of those who have committed suicide.

To end the day, Astin, who is known for his role in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, gave a closing keynote speech full of anecdotal experiences and his observations related to mental health.

The PSU Theater was filled with cheering fans in the audience.

Astin said that it’s this “built in affinity” people have for him as an actor that makes the conversation different than most.

Often times when he comes to a university, he speaks about performance, careers and acting techniques, but this time he got more questions on mental health than any other topic.

“This time, 85 percent of the questions had to do with the topic of the day which is mental health, and they were all insightful, right on the point of what it is I’ve experienced and observed, so the conversation is at altitude from the second you start,” Astin said. “I’d say the ‘Get Out of Jail free card’ when you’re dealing with mental health issues is openness, and it’s so scary and hard for people and understandably so.”

One of the points made throughout the day and in the keynotes was to open up a dialogue which includes listening to one another.

Astin shared a story where he met one young fan at a convention who “had a look about her” that told him she wasn’t okay, and how a 30 minute conversation prevented her from dying by suicide that day.

Astin said the point of his story was to show that without inconveniencing one’s self too much one can make a difference in people’s lives.

One attendant of the closing keynote said that although Astin isn’t an expert in mental health, he is “an expert in human compassion.”

“Wouldn’t it be cool if all you needed to be a superhero was to listen to someone’s anecdote,” Astin said. “If we want to destigmatize mental illness, one strategy I arrived at was to deputize people into feeling that they are actually capable of helping other people.”