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Astronaut Buzz Aldrin may have made it to the moon, but his journey upon returning to Earth was, by his own account, an even greater challenge. When he returned from the Apollo mission in 1969, Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, struggled with both the exhilaration and overwhelming public notoriety of having reached the grandest goal of his career at age 39. He plunged into depression and substance abuse that lasted more than 10 years.
On July 14, 2009, Aldrin—astronaut and mental health advocate—became the second recipient of the prestigious McLean Award, which honors individuals who further the public’s understanding of psychiatric illness. The McLean Award was first bestowed upon ABC journalists Lee Woodruff and her husband, Bob Woodruff, in 2008.
More than 300 guests, including McLean donors, National Council members, faculty, staff, and trustees, as well as former Massachusetts Governor and First Lady Michael and Kitty Dukakis, gathered at McLean’s annual dinner in Boston to hear Aldrin’s inspirational words as he accepted the award. In his speech, Aldrin recounted personal stories about his family’s history with substance abuse, his mother’s suicide a year before his moon walk and the powerful and difficult experience of returning to Earth as an American hero. “I should have been on top of the world, but there were no roadmaps and few signposts, if any, along the way that could lead me out of the quagmire into which I had tumbled,” Aldrin said.
Aldrin also signed copies of his 2009 New York Times best-selling memoir Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon, which openly reveals his struggles with psychiatric illness. In the book, Aldrin writes, “From the pinnacle of Apollo, my greatest challenge became the human one—overcoming alcoholism and living beyond depression—a challenge that required more courage and determination than going to the moon.”
McLean President and Psychiatrist in Chief Scott L. Rauch, MD, introduced Aldrin. “By speaking publicly about his experiences, Buzz Aldrin has given a face to mental illness and helped to raise awareness and reduce stigma,” he said. Rauch likened the nation’s and Aldrin’s vision for space exploration 40 years ago with an equally bold vision for mental health today—one that includes broad access to services and research into prevention and improved treatment, as well as freedom from stigma and disease.
“Just as space travel in the 1960s required dedicated men and women to accomplish a seemingly unattainable goal, so too does realizing this dream for mental health,” Rauch said. “It will take the commitment, teamwork, resources, resolve, and leadership of those at McLean Hospital and beyond to help these goals become reality.”