Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman, still recovering from a stroke, has checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to seek treatment for clinical depression, his office said Thursday.
Fetterman, who has struggled with the after-effects of a stroke he suffered last May, checked himself in on Wednesday night, it said.
“While John has experienced depression off and on throughout his life, it only became severe in recent weeks,” his chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, said in a statement.
Fetterman was evaluated Monday by the attending physician of Congress, Dr. Brian P. Monahan, who recommended in-patient care at Walter Reed, Jentleson said.
“John agreed, and he is receiving treatment on a voluntary basis,” Jentleson said. “After examining John, the doctors at Walter Reed told us that John is getting the care he needs, and will soon be back to himself.”
Known depression link after strokes
Post-stroke depression is common, with one in three stroke patients suffering from it, and is treatable through anti-depressant medication and counselling, 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.
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.”
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Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat and the son of the late senator Edward Kennedy, says he hopes Fetterman’s honesty — and his decisive action to get help — will foster more openness among lawmakers and their constituents. Patrick Kennedy revealed his struggles with mental health and substance abuse when he crashed his car outside the Capitol after taking a combination of prescription drugs in May 2006.
“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.”
Kennedy said Fetterman could find a “whole new world of connection with his constituency” when he returns to the Senate, and could help people understand the brain science behind depression.
“This is a very teachable moment here,” Kennedy said.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murphy, tweeted praise for Fetterman, saying he hopes his “courage will serve as an example for others.”
Fetterman, 53, 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 after winning the race for a vacant seat over Republican Mehmet Oz, the doctor best known for his television appearances as Dr. Oz.
Since then, Fetterman has had to adjust to life in Washington and the daily grind of a federal lawmaker.
Harder for politicians to hide illnesses: Raskin
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.
Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York, who was elected in 2020, has said he dropped out of college and at times thought of suicide after struggling with depression, substance abuse and grief after the loss of a friend.
Some lawmakers have also been open about their fear and anxiety after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, when many of them ran for their lives. Democratic representatives Dan Kildee of Michigan and Annie Kuster of New Hampshire both talked about dealing with post-traumatic stress during that time.
The Jan. 6 attack was another inflection point amid the global pandemic.
“We’re living in a time of extraordinary stress and crisis,” said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, who lost his son to suicide just a few days before the insurrection and has since written a book about his experience. “We’ve come through a plague, we’ve had tremendous mental and emotional health problems.”
Raskin, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, says there may have been a time when political leaders had to pretend that hardships didn’t touch their own families, “but I don’t think we are living in that time.”