mental health

With his depression in remission, Fetterman is back in the Senate. : NPR

With his depression in remission, Fetterman is back in the Senate.  : NPR
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Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) speaks to reporters on the way to the weekly Senate Policy Lunches at the United States Capitol April 18, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

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Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) speaks to reporters on the way to the weekly Senate Policy Lunches at the United States Capitol April 18, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Who is he? John Fetterman is a recently elected Democratic Senator representing Pennsylvania. Although his election victory over TV personality Mehmet Oz has received national attention, Fetterman’s own health issues have been at the forefront of his tenure so far.

  • In May last year, Fetterman suffered a stroke while on the campaign trail.
  • NPR’s Lexie Shapitl and Rhitu Chatterjee reported that Fetterman was sidelined from the midterm campaign for two months, and soon after was implanted with a pacemaker and defibrillator to regulate his heart rate.
  • The incident also left him with new auditory processing challenges, while giving speeches and debating, and ultimately winning the seat, with critics questioning his suitability for the position.
  • Then in February, after a hospital visit related to dizziness, Fetterman went to Walter Reed Medical Center to receive treatment for clinical depression.

What is the problem ? Public acknowledgment by Fetterman of his own mental health issues is rare for politicians, even as depression has become an increasingly common challenge for Americans.

  • After six weeks of treatment at the Neuropsychology Unit at Walter Reed National Medical Center, Fetterman says his doctor told him his depression was in remission.
  • Depression in stroke survivors is quite common. NPR’s Rhitu Chaterjee also reported that approximately 30% of stroke patients will experience depression within the first five years after stroke. This risk increases if they have dealt with depression in the past, like Fetterman.
  • Through her transparency, Fetterman created a platform to discuss mental health issues and encouraged other politicians to share their own stories.

For a deeper exploration, listen consider this dive into how to talk about politicians and mental health.

What are people saying? Fetterman spoke with NPR’s Scott Detrow during his first interview upon his return to the Senate.

On his return to the Senate:

It was just a big smile. I really missed being here. And when I was in the throes of depression, if I’m being 100 percent honest, I wasn’t the kind of senator that Pennsylvanians deserved. I was not the kind of partner I owe to my wife, Gisèle, or my children, Karl, Grace and August.

So so far, (hearing) one of the best sentences I’ve ever heard in my life is that my doctors were sitting while we were in a meeting, and they said:

“John, we think your depression is in remission.” And at first, I couldn’t believe it… and I was just blown away. And now my depression is in remission. And that’s why coming home and coming back to the Senate, and coming back to the gymnasium, being a member of the general public, has been a joy.

On the extent of his struggle with depression:

I was so depressed that I didn’t even realize I was depressed. I didn’t even understand it. This, for me, has become the new normal. I didn’t realize (that) I wasn’t eating. I didn’t realize I didn’t really drink much.

I lost 25 lbs. And sometimes I would say things, incoherent things and just get (disoriented) and get lost walking around Washington.

And then finally, when everything was decided that I had to take this option that was offered to me. I realized that I knew something was wrong. They knew I was wrong. But even then, I still kind of pushed back on that too, sometimes saying ‘Are you sure, I don’t really need it.’ Because then when it really comes down to this choice I’m going to come in here and log in, I thought for a second ‘oh my god no, no, wait a minute. I’m doing well. I – too bad I have this.’

On creating a platform to discuss mental health:

I am honored to have the opportunity to try to pay it forward, as I have been blessed in my opportunities. I mean the kind of things I would have heard years ago that spurred me to action. And I would say to anyone listening to this interview, if you’re suffering from depression, or if you have a loved one, let them know that you don’t need to be suffering from just that depression. Get treatment and get help. If I had done this years ago, I wouldn’t have had to put my family, myself and co-workers (through) unless I had gotten help.

So if you suffer from it, you have the possibility to get rid of it. And I didn’t believe it. But right now, I’m the guy who didn’t believe I could get rid of my depression. And now I did.

So what now?

  • Part of Fetterman’s recovery, according to his doctors, is to stay away from cable TV news and social media — which might be good advice for everyone to follow.
  • Fetterman is back and ready to work, but he’s very grateful for his ability to have some normality with his family: “Being a full partner, and being there, just taking my kids to get pizza, (are) simple things that I just treasured.”

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