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John Fetterman’s Public Battle With Depression Is Shattering Stigma

The Pennsylvania senator’s decisions to temporarily step away from Congress and to discuss his mental health will save lives.

Philip Eil

May 24, 2023

Senator John Fetterman chairs a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry subcommittee hearing to examine the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other nutrition assistance programs in the Farm Bill on Capitol Hill on April 19, 2023. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The facts of John Fetterman’s hospitalization for depression are well-known. In May 2022, during the Democratic primary for the US Senate in Pennsylvania, the then 52-year-old announced that he had suffered a stroke. Fetterman won the primary, and after a few months recuperating, he returned to the campaign trail and beat out TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz in an ugly, hard-fought race. In January, he was sworn in to the US Senate, and the next month he announced that he was checking into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to receive treatment for “severe” depression. He stayed for 44 days before checking out in March. He returned to the Senate in April.

Fetterman’s honesty about his depression was unusual, and the political press took note. Politico published a piece titled “Washington used to abhor talking about mental health. No more.” The Boston Globe was one of many outlets to mention a former US senator from Missouri, Thomas Eagleton, who, in 1972, was a vice presidential nominee for just weeks before reports about his past hospitalizations for depression and electroshock treatment “derailed his chance to serve in the White House.”

These articles correctly noted that Fetterman’s openness about his depression and its treatment ushered in a paradigm shift. But as a journalist who has covered mental health for many years and written about my own depression, I saw additional layers to the story that went unmentioned. Fetterman’s actions struck me as one of the most significant stigma-shattering moments of my lifetime. I believe he has etched a major legacy within months of arriving in Washington. And he did so, improbably, by temporarily stepping away from his job.

And before the end of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to give the junior senator from Pennsylvania the praise he deserves.

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Amid the country’s dizzying array of issues, it can be easy to miss how serious our mental health crisis is. For years, the United States has lost more than 45,000 people to suicide annually, an average of more than 120 people every day, or, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, “one death every 11 minutes.” Meanwhile, the surgeon general has described an “epidemic” of loneliness and isolation. Last year, an American Psychological Association poll found what the organization described as “a battered American psyche, facing a barrage of external stressors that are mostly out of personal control.” Another 2022 poll from CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that “an overwhelming majority of people in the United States think the country is experiencing a mental health crisis.”

When you zoom in on individual groups, the picture is even more alarming. A recent report suggested that suicides among military veterans might be significantly higher than previous, gut-wrenching estimates. According to a recent Trevor Project survey, more than half of LGBTQ youth who want mental health treatment are unable to get it.

At such a time, there is immense value in a US senator simply saying that he’s struggling, too. As someone who has been depressed, I can remember how hearing others talk about their struggles lessened the weight of my isolation, and helped to dispel the misconception that I was uniquely broken, as opposed to struggling with the world’s leading cause of disability.

And the way Fetterman and his team handled the situation went beyond mere visibility. If you read tips from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on how to fight mental health stigma, you’ll see just how many of those boxes Fetterman checked.

“Talk Openly About Mental Health”? He did that, through his initial announcement and later during interviews with Joe Scarborough and People magazine.

“Be Honest About Treatment”? Check.

“Educate Yourself and Others”? Coverage of Fetterman’s depression treatment informed audiences about the links between strokes and depression. It also included descriptions of his symptoms and poignant comments from his wife, Gisele, about the distress that a person’s loved ones can feel in such a situation.

When I spoke with Dr. John Mann, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University and a codirector of the school’s Center for the Prevention and Treatment for Depression, he said it would be hard to exactly quantify the impact of Fetterman’s candor, but he’s sure it will save lives. “The guy is a hero,” he said.

But the impact of Fetterman’s announcement wasn’t just in how he talked about his mental health. It was also a result of who he is.

As a guy on the mental health beat, I know all too well that men report higher levels of stigma, that guys are less likely to seek help than women and more likely to suffer from substance abuse, and that men complete suicide at a rate more than three times higher than women. We are a nation in desperate need of men willing to share their story and share evidence-backed information about mental illness.

And while recent years have brought a heartening trend of actors and athletes willing to speak frankly about these subjects, there have been limits to the shift. Andrew Solomon, a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale University and author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, told me that we’ve reached a point at which the public is open to hearing that people in certain professions are struggling with their mental health. But he says that you won’t find many corporate CEOs willing to talk about depression. “And politics,” he said, “is the area in which it has been the most forbidden topic.”

Fetterman helped to change that.

And, as far as the optics, he isn’t just any male politician seeking treatment for depression. He’s a tall, tattooed, goatee-sporting former football player who prefers hoodies and sneakers to suits and wingtips. If you were to dream up a spokesperson to reach the widest swath of guys who consider themselves Normal Dudes—which is also one of the groups that most urgently needs good advice on mental health—it would look a lot like Fetterman. In the words of Dr. Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist and spokesperson for the APA, when a guy like him talks about this stuff, “it becomes a lot harder for somebody to say, ‘Well, he’s not like me.’”

As remarkable as it was to see a male politician tell a magazine, “I literally stopped eating and drinking, and I wasn’t functional,” there were still other layers of significance. Fetterman didn’t just share that he was struggling with depression; he stepped away from work to get the help he needed.

For other illnesses, this may not have seemed like a big deal. Of course you’d miss work if you had a heart attack or a nasty bout of pneumonia. But all too often, we view mental illness as a matter of toughness. And yet, as Mann told me, “Depression is an illness; it’s not a character flaw. Very strong people with terrific willpower suffer depression.”

And, in the US—a nation with no mandatory paid vacation time, where workaholism is often seen as a virtue—it was even more striking. As the APA’s Dr. Bufka said, “We don’t get better faster by toughing it out…. Taking time away from work is a very powerful statement about how to take care of one’s health that we don’t see when someone says, ‘I’m just going to power through this.’”

And perhaps most radical of all was Fetterman’s honesty about checking into a hospital. For a sense of how stigma works, think about the list of pejorative terms for the place where people receive treatment for mental health: the “looney bin,” the “nut house,” the “funny farm.” Meanwhile, do we have any negative terms for the “regular” hospital where people go when they get sick or injured?

During his stay at Walter Reed, Fetterman shared photos. Later, he welcomed Jane Pauley and a CBS News Sunday Morning film crew to the facility for a segment. These choices allowed the public to see the absence of padded cells, straitjackets, and scenes reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

It was the first time I’ve ever seen a public figure interviewed while hospitalized for mental health treatment.

Fetterman’s honesty about his depression doesn’t fix our national mental health crisis. As I write this, our suicide crisis rages on. Stigma and misinformation persist, and systemic inequities remain. As Andrew Solomon told me, six weeks of treatment at Walter Reed Hospital is a level of care available to “only a tiny percentage” of Americans. And this is, he said, a “gross injustice.”

And yet Fetterman’s public battle with depression was an extraordinary moment. A recently elected US senator checked into a hospital for depression. His announcement was received with bipartisan praise. And he got an ovation from colleagues when he returned.

If you think I’m overstating the impact, consider how long Thomas Eagleton’s short-lived vice-presidential candidacy remained a reference point. Eagleton, who retired from the senate 35 years ago, was mentioned in reports on Fetterman from The New York Times, CBS Sunday Morning, and Meet the Press, among other outlets. His treatment for depression appeared in the first sentence of his 2007 obituary. The events surrounding his candidacy, which we so charged with misunderstanding and negative stigma, helped steer our discussion of mental health and politics for a half-century.

Fetterman gave us a new narrative, loaded with helpful information and far less stigma. It was a story of simple, yet all-too-rarely-spoken truths: Depression is a common illness; people in positions of power get depressed, too; depression is highly treatable, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.

May we remember this for as long as we discussed the “Eagleton Affair.”

Philip EilTwitterPhilip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Rhode Island. His debut book, Prescription for Pain: How a Once-Promising Doctor Became the "Pill Mill Killer" will be released in April 2024.

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