John Fetterman had every reason in the world to be happy after November 8, 2022. He had just defeated Mehmet Oz in the most closely-watched and most expensive election of the year, and he was about to join the U.S. Senate representing the state of Pennsylvania.
But Fetterman, 53, didn’t feel like a winner. Still struggling with the effects a severe stroke he suffered that May, Fetterman was feeling particularly despondent after the attacks on his health in the closing days of the campaign and found himself feeling “firmly indifferent to living.”
This feeling, and the encouragement of his family, led Fetterman to admit himself to a hospital for treatment of depression. He returned to the Senate on April 16 following a six-week stay, with his depression in remission. Now, Fetterman is determined to discuss his mental health struggles with a candor and openness unusual in American politics.
“I don’t care if you’re a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, we all can be depressed—and we all can get made healthier,” Fetterman told People. “Go to the doctor or whoever you’re able to. Address your depression. I was skeptical it would make anything better, but it did. It works. And I’m so grateful.”
Struggles with Depression
Although Fetterman, a Democrat, was widely considered the early frontrunner in his race against Republican challenger Oz, the polls narrowed in the final weeks of the campaign as the focus shifted to concerns about Fetterman’s health following his May 13 stroke.
Fetterman suffered with speech problems after the stroke, as well as auditory processing issues that required the use of transcription monitors during public appearances. He compared attacks during the campaign to having “a $100 million blow torch turned on you” and reached a low point after noticeably struggling during a televised debate with Oz on October 25.
Fetterman won the election by a 5 percent margin, marking the only Senate seat from the 2022 midterms to flip parties. But rather than alleviate his depression, Fetterman was feeling at his lowest point following the victory. He stopped eating and drinking, could barely leave bed, and his aides struggled to get the senator-elect to engage with his new job.
“After I won, I still felt that depression—like, I felt lost,” Fetterman told NPR. “I wasn’t elated. I wasn’t happy about it. I was relieved that it was over. But at the same time, I never had the opportunity to recover from the stroke, and I had depression, and a lot of just the stress and everything. [I] really wasn’t able to address it.”
After discussions with his wife, Gisele, and his children, Fetterman decided he had to do something “or it could end in the most awful way” he told People. He publicly admitted himself to the neuropsychiatry unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on March 31.
Over the next 44 days, Fetterman underwent daily talk therapy, tested various medications, exercised, and worked to better understand his condition. Despite initial concern about how the public would react to his treatment, Fetterman was met with an outpouring of good will from colleagues and constituents, with some fellow Senators visiting him in the hospital.
With his depression in remission, Fetterman left treatment feeling prepared for his new job in the Senate and was met with a standing ovation by the Democratic caucuses upon his return. Fetterman said he is now determined to “pay it forward” by speaking openly and frankly about mental health issues and urging others to seek out help like he did.
“Now that I am back, I’m really committed [to] letting people know: To anyone that has any of these feelings, there’s a path, and you can get better,” Fetterman told NPR. He also told The Washington Post: “If even one person can get help as a result, then that’s what I want to do.”
Lawmakers Speaking Out on Mental Illness
Celebrities in a variety of industries have spoken candidly about mental illness, including Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Selena Gomez, Meghan Markle, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But few in American politics have been as public and outspoken about their struggles with depression and mental illness. Still, Fetterman is not the first to speak out in this way.
Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota wrote an essay praising Fetterman for seeking help and discussed her own struggles with depression. “My experience taught me how important getting help can be,” she wrote. “And I also remember the experience of slowly emerging from depression: a little more energy every day.”
Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts publicly spoke about his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his military service in Iraq and co-led a proposal to expand mental health services to members of the military in 2019. The proposal currently remains before the House health committee.
Lynn Rivers, who represented Michigan in the U.S. House from 1995 to 2003, was the first openly bipolar member of Congress. She publicly disclosed her condition during her campaign in 1994 and has worked to be a model for people living with mental illness ever since.
New York Representative Ritchie Torres as also spoken candidly about his depression issues and antidepressant treatment and has advocated for improving access to mental health care services.
“I admire Sen. John Fetterman for openly seeking treatment for depression at Walter Reed,” Torres wrote in February. “Back in 2010, I was hospitalized for depression. I would not be alive, let alone in Congress, were it not for mental health care.”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.