Fetterman's hospitalization is an opportunity to educate

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board (TNS)

Getting treatment for depression is a painstaking step for anyone to take — perhaps even more for a U.S. senator who must do it in the public arena. Sen. John Fetterman’s candor about his condition, after admitting himself into Walter Reed Medical Center last week, was laudable, courageous and, potentially, liberating. One in 5 Americans suffer from depression. Even so, an insidious stigma about mental health persists, though it is far less crushing than it was 50 years ago, when a presidential candidate dumped his running mate following revelations about his mental health treatment.

Whether depression or any after-effects of a stroke will keep Fetterman from serving as a U.S. senator is a decision only he can make, with the help of his doctors, advisers and, most of all, his family. Either way, it’s a choice no one has the right to second-guess.

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Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., emerges from a closed-door, classified briefing for senators at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 14, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

It’s an understatement to say Fetterman’s life has changed dramatically in the past year. His May stroke altered his imposing physique and muted his ebullient personality. He used closed captioning to understand conversation partners. Nevertheless, he pressed forward with an exhausting and, ultimately, successful campaign for U.S. Senate, promising authenticity with his words and actions. Now, away from his wife and children, he is adapting to the demanding life of a U.S. senator.

About one-third of stroke survivors experience depression, as they cope with diminished capabilities. Fetterman is struggling with this reality under the glare of publicity. He is, undoubtedly, coping with enormous pressures and stresses.

Fetterman’s struggles, including a brief hospital stay for dizziness from Feb. 8 to 10, do raise questions about the candor of his campaign about his condition. The campaign never released key details about Fetterman’s cognitive assessments. Recent reporting by The New York Times suggests that, contrary to campaign statements, the grind of a political campaign hindered his recovery. Going forward, Fetterman and his team ought to be as transparent as possible.

Some commentators have compared the public reaction to Fetterman’s hospitalization favorably with George McGovern’s sacking of Sen. Thomas Eagleton as his 1972 running mate, after revelations about Eagleton’s electroshock therapy years prior. We have come a ways from 1972, and from 1989, when William Styron’s bestselling memoir, “Darkness Invisible: A Memoir of Madness,” about the celebrated writer’s horrifying descent into depression and his triumphant recovery, sparked a national conversation on mental illness.

Even in the 1970s, the American people had better sense than some of their politicians. McGovern panicked, but 77% of Americans said Eagleton’s condition would not have affected their vote. The people of Missouri reelected Eagleton to the Senate twice more, in 1974 and 1980.

Whether Fetterman continues as a U.S. senator, the candor and honesty he shows about a condition that still carries an insidious stigma could make this a landmark moment in the life of Fetterman and the cause of mental health education and treatment throughout the nation.

— From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board (TNS).