What John Fetterman’s Mental Health Says About America
On Monday, the office of Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) released a statement saying that he was “doing well,” was working with doctors and “remains on the path to recovery.”
Fetterman checked himself in to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Feb. 16 to be treated for clinical depression.
Months earlier, the 53-year-old had suffered a stroke just ahead of the May primary election. Noting the stroke nearly killed him, Fetterman spent the subsequent months off the campaign trail to recover before ultimately returning and beating his GOP opponent, Mehmet Oz, in the general election.
Dr. Will Cronenwett, psychiatry chief at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told The Associated Press that depression occurs after a stroke in about 1 in 3 patients.
Moreover, Fetterman has shared that he suffered bouts of depression even before his stroke.
Fetterman’s communications director Joe Calvello told The Washington Post in a statement that the senator “is visiting with staff and family daily, and his staff are keeping him updated on Senate business and news. Our team is moving full speed ahead and working tirelessly for the people of Pennsylvania. Just last week we opened a new office in Erie and will be opening several more offices in the coming weeks.”
Calvello added: “We understand the intense interest in John’s status and especially appreciate the flood of well-wishes. However, as we have said, this will be a weeks-long process and while we will be sure to keep folks updated as it progresses, this is all there is to give by way of an update.”
Like many, I applaud Fetterman’s decision to be treated for clinical depression and hope it does indeed help remove the decadeslong stigmatization of depression, anxiety and treatment for each.
We need more public figures to announce that they, too, struggle with their mental health. On the other hand, when a public figure holds a U.S. Senate seat, I am depressed by the idea that the greatest powers he can generate from that seat are visibility and awareness.
“We must move beyond the notion that anyone simply saying they need help is enough anymore.”
Unfortunately, Fetterman’s openness and the “intense interest in John’s status” have caused problems for his family.
Last Friday, Fetterman’s wife, Giselle Barreto Fetterman, said that media attention drove her to take her children to Canada for an impromptu holiday.
“I am not really sure how to navigate this journey but am figuring it out slowly,” she tweeted.
She continued: “One week ago today when the news dropped, the kids were off from school and media trucks circled our home. I did the first thing I could think of – pack them in the car and drive.
“We talked about lots of hard things, and how we will all have to face hard things. About the need to be gentle, with all and with ourselves. We did some scary things but we did them together. We zipline over Niagara Falls and [our son] August got stuck. We talked about flexibility and the need to always have an open heart and an open mind.
“We also talked about how joy and fun can and must still exist, even when someone we love is in pain. And tomorrow? Who knows. Will try all over again.”
John Fetterman is not the first politician to share his struggles with his mental health, but he is still on a relatively short list, and even fewer have shared his candidness prior to some scandal requiring it.
We have come a long way from Patrick Kennedy, former congressman and son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who only shared his struggles after he crashed his car outside the Capitol while intoxicated in 2006.
Kennedy had previously refused the mental health treatment recommended by his doctors out of fear of being recognized in the psychiatric wing of the hospital.
Once Kennedy shared this, his popularity grew and he went on to become a mental health advocate.
Following Fetterman’s announcement earlier this month, Kennedy said in an interview: “This is a moment for us to tear down the stigma of depression and anxiety. Sen. Fetterman may do more for people just by admitting that he’s getting help for depression than any bill he ends up sponsoring.”
Perhaps Fetterman’s profile and his capacity to seek help before an incident make his story more noteworthy, but when 1 out of 5 Americans experiences a mental illness every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, his story is not uncommon.
So, while I do wish nothing but a full recovery for Fetterman, I hope that once he returns to the Senate, he does indeed sponsor a bill that makes the kind of treatment he is receiving more accessible to average Americans.
While U.S. adults are among the most willing to seek professional help for emotional distress, they are also among the most likely to report access or affordability issues, according to the Commonwealth Fund’s annual international health policy survey released in 2020. Suicide rates have risen to pre-pandemic levels in 2023 — and there is an unprecedented health crisis for both teen boys and girls.
John Fetterman is only one person. I don’t write any of this to suggest the responsibility to raise awareness is his alone. Still, as brave as he is to seek help in the public eye — for better or worse — we must move beyond the notion that anyone simply saying they need help is enough anymore.
In America, a lot of us need help with our mental health not because of stigmatization but due to a lack of role in our government to make mental health care more affordable and accessible.
As much as we should root for Fetterman on his road to recovery, we must also think of the millions of Americans with similar struggles who need help but can’t get it.