When Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) revealed Thursday that he’d checked himself into the hospital to receive treatment for clinical depression, his office provided a simple, straightforward explanation: Pennsylvania’s newly elected Democrat is ill and needs medical care before returning to work.
The statement wasn’t dissimilar to those others lawmakers have put out when they’re sick — and that’s the beauty in it, mental health professionals say.
“Our brain is just another part of our body. He’s getting help to heal a part of his brain that needs some additional assistance,” Julie Goldstein Grumet, who oversees the Zero Suicide Institute at the Education Development Center, said of Fetterman. No one has to disclose their health information, but Fetterman’s ”transparency really espouses his ability to be a role model to others,” she continued.
Mental illness is incredibly common, psychotherapist Ashley McGirt noted, and it affects people from all walks of life ― politicians included.
“1 in 5 of us suffer from a mental health related condition,” she wrote to HuffPost. “That includes senators, lawyers, doctors, scientists, construction workers and so many other working professionals. Too often we see labels that many of us hold as an exemption from mental illness.”
“Our brain is just another part of our body. He’s getting help to heal a part of his brain that needs some additional assistance.”
Fetterman won a hard-fought battle for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat last year against TV doctor-turned-Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, whose plethora of fringe medical advice includes discouraging people from common, established treatments for depression. Though some of Fetterman’s political opponents are already using his announcement to cast doubt on his fitness for office, his colleagues in Congress have been largely supportive and praised him for his candor.
Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), who’s been vocal about his own experience being hospitalized with depression 13 years ago, was among them, telling HuffPost on Friday that Fetterman’s announcement is a powerful denouncement of shame around depression.
“I’m a living testament to the life-saving power of psychotherapy and psychiatry, and I would not be alive today were it not for mental health care and the stability it brought to my life in my moment of greatest need,” he told HuffPost on Friday. While running for Congress in 2020, Torres said, “I made a deliberate decision to be honest and open about my own struggles with depression in the hopes of breaking the taboo that often surrounds mental health.”
Torres believes that it’s because, not in spite, of his mental health struggles that he’s a good leader to his constituents.
“I see my battles with mental illness as part of my lived experience that informs what I do as a public servant. Far from weakening, it strengthens me as a public servant,” he reflected. “The most important value that I can have as a public servant is empathy for the plight of the American people, and there are millions of Americans who are struggling mightily with depression.”
Fetterman, a middle-aged white man, belongs to a demographic group with one of the country’s highest rates of suicide, and many like him do not pursue help.
“We know that middle-aged white men tend to be more reluctant to seek treatment, both because of stigma and because of cultural norms that we propagate around strength and bearing pain,” Goldstein Grumet noted, saying she’s hopeful Fetterman’s announcement can help change that.
McGirt, who founded the Therapy Fund Foundation ― an organization providing the Black community with free mental health services ― said she’d like to see Fetterman’s announcement also spark conversations about minorities’ unique mental health experiences.
“Sen. Fetterman is a white male with health insurance and a high paying position that makes treatment readily accessible,” she wrote. “He will also most likely receive treatment from someone who looks like him and shares his same racial ethnicity. This is not the norm for BIPOC community members.”
“I see my battles with mental illness as part of my lived experience that informs what I do as a public servant. Far from weakening, it strengthens me as a public servant.”
People of color, she continued, often struggle to find “culturally appropriate clinicians who represent them” or to pay for basic mental health care, which can cost hundreds of dollars per hour. At inpatient treatment facilities like the one where Fetterman is receiving care, ethnic minorities often cannot access the types of hair and hygiene products they need, as “most treatment facilities cater toward eurocentric bodies,” McGirt wrote.
But those who are optimistic about the impact Fetterman could have on mental health awareness also felt that his announcement reflects the progress that’s already been made.
Loss and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have been a “catastrophe for mental health in America,” Torres said, but have also helped propel an ongoing culture shift around mental health awareness.
“The kind of transparency that we’ve seen from Senator Fetterman about his mental health,” Torres reflected, “would have been unthinkable a decade ago.”
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.