U.S. Senator Openly Discusses His Depression – Courageous Candor That Challenges Stigma

(4-4-23) Thomas Eagleton was forced to resign as George McGovern’s presidential running mate in 1972 after Eagleton acknowledged that he’d been treated for depression. This Sunday on CBS Sunday Morning,  Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) told Jane Pauley (who has written about her own mental issues) about his debilitating depression. In this editorial, The Washington Post rightly praises Fetterman for disclosing his struggle. Another step forward against stigma and shame.

 John Fetterman shines a light on dark days and nights

John Fetterman at a news conference on Nov. 9, after winning a U.S. Senate seat representing Pennsylvania. (Joe Lamberti for The Washington Post)

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) on Sunday offered a moving and exemplary profile in courage, one that could help millions of other Americans by defying the stigma on mental illness.  In an interview broadcast on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” with Jane Pauley, the senator described in raw, personal terms how he had confronted depression and checked himself in for treatment following his victory in the marquee race of the 2022 election.

Mr. Fetterman, then Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, suffered a stroke last May, and his health became an issue during the campaign. Declaring he was fighting for everyone “that ever got knocked down,” he defeated Mehmet Oz, the celebrity television host, for the Senate seat. Then, a dark cloud appeared to envelop him after Election Day.

“It’s like … you just won the biggest, you know, race in — in the country. The whole thing about depression is, is that objectively, you may have won, but depression can absolutely convince you that you actually lost. And that’s exactly what happened. And that was the start of a downward spiral,” he said in the interview, given two days before his release from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “I had stopped leaving my bed. I had stopped eating. I was dropping weight. I had stopped engaging some of the, most things that I love in my life.”

In the interview, the father of three described an agonizing scene at home. “I had a conversation with my 14-year-old and he said, ‘Dad, what’s wrong? … We’re great. We’re here. And you won.’ An incredibly sad moment where my 14-year-old can’t possibly understand why you can’t get out of your bed.” That was the day he admitted himself to the hospital, and missed his son’s birthday celebration, he recalled.

In the past, it was considered taboo for politicians to confess to a diagnosis of depression, which affects 21 million adults. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, then the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, dropped out of the 1972 race after it was revealed he had been hospitalized for depression. (However, he was reelected twice more to the Senate, in 1974 and 1980.)

Mr. Fetterman said it took him a while to recognize his own difficulty. At a post-election Democratic retreat, “many of my colleagues were coming up to me and asking me, ‘why aren’t you eating?’” He seemed lost at his swearing in on Jan. 3. “He had markedly reduced motivation and drive,” said neuropsychiatrist David Williamson, who has been treating the senator.

Mr. Fetterman, as a senator, had access to high-quality care not available to everyone. But he deserves recognition for setting an example. He did not surrender to shame or stigmas about mental illness. Depression is among the most treatable of mental disorders. Hopefully, the senator’s leadership will inspire others to confront it, and to seek treatment.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.