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John Fetterman is openly discussing his treatment for depression. Few politicians do.

By doing so, he’s normalizing a conversation around mental health.

Then-Senate candidate John Fetterman speaks during a rally at Carpenters Union Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 7, 2022, on the eve of the US midterm elections.
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), 53, has checked into Walter Reed Medical Center to receive in-patient treatment for clinical depression, according to a statement from his chief of staff, Adam Jentleson.

Fetterman’s decision to obtain treatment follows a stroke he experienced last May, which left him with auditory processing issues, and a brief hospitalization in early February after he experienced lightheadedness. Roughly one-third of stroke survivors experience depression and it can be related to “biochemical changes in the brain,” according to the American Heart Association. Fetterman, however, hasn’t disclosed any connection between his stroke and depression.

“While John has experienced depression off and on throughout his life, it only became severe in recent weeks,” the statement reads, adding that he went in on a “voluntary basis” and that he’s working to get the care he needs.

Fetterman’s open discussion of depression is significant, given how rarely lawmakers talk about their own mental health. His willingness to both disclose his medical condition and the treatment he’s sought is also a major step toward normalizing such conversations. While the discourse about mental health has become more transparent in recent years, experts say statements from high-profile figures like Fetterman play an important role in continuing to destigmatize these issues.

“When somebody like Sen. Fetterman is transparent about having a clinical mental health condition and about getting inpatient treatment, it’s hugely powerful,” says Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor at George Washington University School of Medicine. “Talking about it really helps. When you see something like this in the news, it gives folks permission to share that story with a friend, to bring it up in a text chat.”

Fetterman joins lawmakers, including Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), and former Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA), in candidly addressing mental health. Smith previously spoke about her own experiences with depression in college and as a parent, emphasizing that treatment should be destigmatized and demystified.

Fetterman is one of the only senators in recent years to disclose that he’s undergoing treatment for depression. Previously, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton revealed that he was hospitalized for clinical depression in the 1970s and was dropped from Democratic candidate George McGovern’s presidential ticket as a result, a decision McGovern said he regrets.

“Seeking help when you need it is a sign of strength, not weakness, something that John is demonstrating for all of us,” Smith wrote in a statement on Twitter.

Fetterman’s disclosure contributes to less stigma around mental health

Fetterman’s willingness to talk about treatment is notable, given the degree of vulnerability that involves, and the stigma that has surrounded mental health in the past. In a 2022 poll from CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 35 percent of people said they were not too comfortable talking about their mental health with family and friends, and 14 percent of those respondents cited stigma as one of the reasons holding them back.

Fetterman’s statement, and others like it, are among those that have helped contribute to an ongoing cultural shift. A 2018 survey from the American Psychological Association found that Americans were becoming more open about mental health, with 87 percent of people agreeing that having a mental health disorder was not something to be ashamed of.

His decision to speak openly about mental health could also serve as a model for others, experts note.

“We know that men don’t always reach out when they need help,” says Katie Lee, a communications director with the advocacy group Mental Health America. “When you do have someone that looks like you reaching out, that gives you the push to reach out yourself.”

A 2019 study from the National Institute of Health previously found that men, in particular, have been less likely to seek out mental health treatment due to societal expectations. Fetterman — a politician famously known for projecting more of a tough-guy image with his tattoos and hoodies — could help dismantle stereotypes and preconceived notions that people may have.

Fetterman’s decision to address his mental health challenges also comes as many people across the country are grappling with getting care and treatment themselves following the immense strain of the pandemic. “As much as we live in a culture that wants to move on and pretend that everything’s fine, we’re still seeing the health impact of Covid, the mental health impact and the economic impact,” says Lakshmin. According to the World Health Organization, the pandemic has prompted a 25 percent uptick in depression and anxiety worldwide.

His willingness to talk about this issue could demonstrate to others dealing with their own experiences that lawmakers have an understanding of what they’re going through — and serve as a reminder of just how common depression is. Over 17 million adults, or 7 percent of the adult population, are affected by a major depressive disorder, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

“Talking about it now lets you know you’re not alone,” says Lee.

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