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Fetterman’s Mental Health Activism

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My friend Phil Eil wrote this piece on how John Fetterman being so open with his mental health issues really is a pioneering thing that you rarely see from anyone in power. It matters. A lot.

These articles correctly noted that Fetterman’s openness about his depression and its treatment ushered in a paradigm shift. But as a journalist who has covered mental health for many years and written about my own depression, I saw additional layers to the story that went unmentioned. Fetterman’s actions struck me as one of the most significant stigma-shattering moments of my lifetime. I believe he has etched a major legacy within months of arriving in Washington. And he did so, improbably, by temporarily stepping away from his job.

And before the end of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to give the junior senator from Pennsylvania the praise he deserves.

Amid the country’s dizzying array of issues, it can be easy to miss how serious our mental health crisis is. For years, the United States has lost more than 45,000 people to suicide annually, an average of more than 120 people every day, or, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, “one death every 11 minutes.” Meanwhile, the surgeon general has described an “epidemic” of loneliness and isolation. Last year, an American Psychological Association poll found what the organization described as “a battered American psyche, facing a barrage of external stressors that are mostly out of personal control.” Another 2022 poll from CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that “an overwhelming majority of people in the United States think the country is experiencing a mental health crisis.”

When you zoom in on individual groups, the picture is even more alarming. A recent report suggested that suicides among military veterans might be significantly higher than previous, gut-wrenching estimates. According to a recent Trevor Project survey, more than half of LGBTQ youth who want mental health treatment are unable to get it.

At such a time, there is immense value in a US senator simply saying that he’s struggling, too. As someone who has been depressed, I can remember how hearing others talk about their struggles lessened the weight of my isolation, and helped to dispel the misconception that I was uniquely broken, as opposed to struggling with the world’s leading cause of disability.

And the way Fetterman and his team handled the situation went beyond mere visibility. If you read tips from the National Alliance on Mental Illness(NAMI) on how to fight mental health stigma, you’ll see just how many of those boxes Fetterman checked.

“Talk Openly About Mental Health”? He did that, through his initial announcement and later during interviews with Joe Scarborough and People magazine.

“Be Honest About Treatment”? Check.

“Educate Yourself and Others”? Coverage of Fetterman’s depression treatment informed audiences about the links between strokes and depression. It also included descriptions of his symptoms and poignant comments from his wife, Gisele, about the distress that a person’s loved ones can feel in such a situation.

It’s entirely possible that in the future, we look back upon Fetterman’s moves here as being a historically significant point in the history of disability.

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