John Fetterman’s Public Battle With Depression Is Shattering Stigma

Senator John Fetterman chairs a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry subcommittee hearing to examine the…

John Fetterman’s Public Battle With Depression Is Shattering Stigma

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.

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.”