The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Let’s talk about mental health
For months after he suffered a serious stroke on the campaign trail, discussions about the health of Sen. John Fetterman, the Democrat from Pennsylvania (who is sort-of, kind-of one of our own because he earned an MBA from UConn) has been frontand-center.
It’s no secret that a life in politics is demanding, and the concern was that after his stroke, Fetterman would not be up to the challenges of his immensely public life.
Some of that commentary — of course — was politically motivated, little more than a football to be tossed around the field. And then last week, the senator checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Center to seek treatment for clinical depression, and the football became a blimp.
Those of us with political memory heard the ghost of Thomas Eagleton trying (to little avail) to explain his own mental health challenges to a public that had been trained to embrace the stigma. What a disappointment we were then. I wonder if we can do better now.
Eagleton was the running mate chosen by Democrat George McGovern in 1972. He was also one of Missouri’s finest, an opponent of the Vietnam War, and an important addition to the Democratic ticket — until, that is, reports surfaced that he’d had been hospitalized three times for treatment of depression, and had undergone electroshock therapy, today more commonly known as electroconvulsive therapy.
At first, McGovern — Eagleton had not told him about his medical past — insisted that he supported his candidate “1,000 percent.” Math is funny, because McGovern’s 1,000 percent lasted all of 18 days, when Eagleton left the ticket.
At the time, a Time magazine survey found that 76.7 percent of Americans said Eagleton’s mental health challenges didn’t change the way they intended to vote, but that attitude did not cross over into media coverage. The press’ charge against Eagleton as a viable candidate was led by people such as Jack Anderson, the syndicated columnist, who manufactured details in the Eagleton story for which there was and is no excuse.
Over time, subsequent studies, including from the American Psychological Association, say that the public — if not the media — is becoming more adept at talking about mental health, and that’s a big step. More discussion equals less stigma. Less stigma equals more public resources devoted to the research of mental health. More resource equals, well, you get the idea.
But today’s mental health news coverage — including a recent New York Times article that caught its own bit of flak — has revealed just how paltry is the language we use to discuss everything from ongoing health challenges to mental health issues, “we” being the media. It is absolutely valid to question whether a politician dealing with a significant health issue is fit for the job for which that politician was elected. Reports say Fetterman could be hospitalized for a few weeks, but we need to base our discussions on science and best practices, not fear and ignorance.
We already know that we, the media, too often inaccurately link mental health to crime and violence — though citizen journalists tend to do a better, more complete job — and this episode shows that, once again, we are helping keep the stigma alive. We portray mental health challenges as something dangerous and weird, and deeply disqualifying. In fact, mental challenges are more often quiet and painful — and immensely prevalent. Go on a college campus. You can’t swing a cat without striking someone whose life is made better with proper mental health treatment. Don’t restrict your catswinging to a campus. Walk into any school, business, or hospital. Pick a street, any street.
A journalist’s role in all this is extremely important, especially in light of an ongoing pandemic that has exacerbated an already-existing mental health crisis. A Pew Research Center survey from December said that four in 10 American adults had “high levels of psychological distress,” and those episodes are, according to Pew, “strongly tied to disability status and income.”
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey that said more than 40 percent of high school students said they were sad enough to avoid regular activities such as afterschool clubs or sports for at least two weeks during the year. That could, said the survey, be a sign of depression. The number is even higher — 70 percent — for youth in the LGBT community, who also tend to experience more violence than their classmates. The survey also saw “significant” increases in young people who considered suicide. This is an unbearable weight on a system that’s already inadequate to the task.
After Sen. Fetterman checked himself in, other politicians — including Rep. Ritchie Torres, of New York — publicly showed their support. Torres tweeted that he’d been hospitalized for depression in 2010, and said he “would not be alive, let alone in Congress, were it not for mental health care.”
The media needs to follow this lead. If we don’t learn to talk, write and broadcast about this, we will continue to contribute to the loss of some incredible people. Sen. Fetterman’s team sent out an appeal collecting donations to two mental health organizations. His hospitalization for depression — which can follow a stroke — is a good start to a serious discussion. As the senator seeks answers, we should be looking for some, ourselves.
Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “TempestTossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.