Fetterman draws praise for getting help
WASHINGTON >> When Patrick Kennedy was in Congress, he would sneak in his treatments for substance abuse over the holidays, in between congressional work periods. And he refused mental health treatment recommended by his doctors, worried he would be recognized in that wing of the hospital.
Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat and the son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, was eventually forced to reveal his struggles when he crashed his car outside the Capitol after taking a combination of prescription drugs in May 2006. He talked openly about his mental health and substance abuse for the first time, and something surprising happened — he became more popular with his constituency, winning reelection by a bigger margin than he had two years earlier.
On Thursday, the office of Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, a Democrat who was elected to the Senate after a bruising campaign during which he suffered a stroke, announced he had checked himself into the hospital for clinical depression. The statement said Fetterman had experienced depression on and off in his life, but it had only become severe in recent weeks.
Aides to the senator who were granted anonymity to speak about private interactions said Fetterman had become withdrawn, something they had never seen from him. The hospital stay could take “weeks” or until doctors are satisfied with his progress, one of the aides said. He is not expected to resign from the Senate.
Fetterman’s public struggle is extraordinary in a building where few talk about their own mental health, even while members of both parties have legislation to expand aid for it. Kennedy and a handful of others who have been open about their own problems, or those in their family, say they hope Fetterman’s honesty — and his decisive action to get help — will foster more openness among lawmakers and their constituents in the wake of a global pandemic that has had farreaching effects.
“This is a moment for us to tear down the stigma of depression and anxiety,” said Kennedy, who retired in 2010 and has become a leading voice on mental illness. “Sen. Fetterman may do more for people just by admitting that he’s getting help for depression than any bill he ends up sponsoring.”
The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, tweeted praise for Fetterman, saying he hopes his “courage will serve as an example for others.”
Fetterman’s Senate colleagues were immediately supportive.
“In every single city and town and rural community there is someone struggling with mental health,” said Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat who shared her own stories about periods of depression on the Senate
floor four years ago. “If they see somebody else, like John, saying, ‘OK, I need to get medical care,’ that can be important to people.”
South Dakota’s John Thune, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said he thinks politicians have become more comfortable discussing the issue since the pandemic.
“The more open, transparent people can be, the better our understanding is,” Thune said.
Fetterman’s hospitalization comes after a rough year in which the 53 yearold suffered a stroke just ahead of the May primary election and spent much of the summer off the campaign trail, recovering. He has said the stroke nearly killed him. He also underwent surgery to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator to manage two heart conditions, atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy. He entered the Senate in January, where he has had to adjust to life in Washington and the daily grind of a federal lawmaker.
“It’s unreal what @ Johnfetterman has been through in the last year,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy, D-conn. “A stroke, a recovery, a bruising campaign, a transition to the Senate. I’m so proud of him for taking his health seriously. He’s going to be a great Senator for a long time, and I’m pulling for him today.”
Texas Sen. John Cornyn said the Senate “can be arduous. So I’m sure if somebody is not up to 100% then it’s especially tough, so I wish him well.”
Post-stroke depression is common, doctors say. And that could be even more difficult when dealing with it publicly, like Fetterman is.
“Having a stroke in and of itself is devastating and having to recover from a stroke in the public eye only adds to the level of stress as one recovers,” said Dr. Bruce Ovbiagele, associate dean and professor of neurology at the University of California-san Francisco.
Fetterman is still battling auditory processing disorder, a common aftereffect of a stroke that leaves him unable to hear some spoken words so that he can quickly respond. Instead, he uses devices to transcribe conversations so he can read the words and respond. That has left him frustrated with the social difficulties that presents, one of the aides said.
Dr. Eric Lenze, head of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, said he thinks it’s “interesting and heroic” for a major political figure to acknowledge depression, “instead of saying they’re hospitalized for exhaustion or trying to hide it.”
While many members are still loath to talk about themselves or their own hardships, some have been more forthcoming about mental illness in recent years. Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild declared from the House floor in 2019 that suicide is a “national emergency” and told the story of her partner, who had recently taken his own life. Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., who was elected in 2020,