The face of courage

York Dispatch

One small but important aspect of changing the conversation about mental health in this country is the need to remove the stigma around seeking help. In far too many corners, seeking treatment or counseling is considered a sign of weakness, something to be pitied, an indication of fragility.

That’s why it was heartening to see the reaction when newly elected U.S. Sen. John Fetterman announced in mid-February that he had checked himself into a hospital for treatment for clinical depression.

The largely supportive reaction from both sides of the political aisle, even amid the perpetual rancor in the nation’s capital, offers some hope that times — and minds — may be changing for the good.

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, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

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Fetterman, 53 and in his first Senate term, suffered a stroke last May shortly before the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. He won the primary and the general election even though the stroke caused a lingering auditory processing disorder that makes him reliant on closed captioning when talking to other people.

In February, Fetterman’s office announced that he had checked himself into Walter Reed Medical Center on Feb. 15, seeking treatment for clinical depression. More than a month after entering the hospital for treatment, Fetterman remains there, where his aides say he works regularly and continues to have daily briefings.

Clinical depression, or major depression, is one of the most prevalent mental health issues in the United States; the National Institutes of Health reports it affects approximately 8% of the population, or more than 21 million Americans.

Fetterman’s decision to seek treatment is what people with depression should do. And by making that choice public, he may well help others struggling with mental illness to reach out for help.

Politically, however, the decision was a risky one. Republicans savaged Fetterman on the campaign trail following his stroke, the effects of which were obvious in the run-up to November’s election. Checking into a hospital for mental health treatment might have invited further ridicule.

But aside from a few contemptible voices, the overwhelming response was one of support, concern and compassion — from Fetterman’s fellow Democrats and from some leading Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote on Twitter that he was happy that Fetterman is “getting the help he needs and deserves,” and noted that millions of Americans struggle with depression.

Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, rightly pointed out that “Seeking help when you need it is a sign of strength, not weakness...”

She knows what she’s talking about. Smith gave a Senate speech in 2019 describing her bouts with depression years earlier. She has made expanding mental health care one of her priorities.

Republicans could have easily stayed quiet but conservative leaders such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas wished Fetterman a speedy recovery. Such humanity and decency is all too rare in our political discourse.

All of that is a welcome sign of needed progress in the way our society deals with mental disorders. While most people are comfortable now disclosing physical ailments, many still fear the stigma and judgment associated with mental disorders. They fear people will consider such admissions a sign of weakness. They fear being judged unfit for the job. Politicians, who live in the spotlight, have been especially wary.

Fetterman’s struggle with depression reminds us of a truth too often forgotten in today’s harsh politics: Those who serve our country in elected office are human too.

Transparency in government is essential in a democracy, including transparency about officials’ physical and mental health. Gone are the days when Franklin Roosevelt could hide his paralysis, or Woodrow Wilson’s wife could essentially take over after a stroke left the president incapacitated.

Politicians — like most people — are a wary bunch, never eager to show vulnerability. But it is a sign of strength to know one’s limits. One hopes Fetterman’s decision can be an example to the American people, especially our youth, that seeking help is courageous, not cowardice.

— From the Virginia-Pilot & Daily Press editorial board (TNS).