Thank you, John Fetterman.

You might remember that I was critical of Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor during his campaign for the U.S. Senate.  I noted that he was not timely in notifying the public about his stroke when it occurred just before the primary. Nor was he forthcoming about his underlying cardiomyopathy and need for a pacemaker.  And I thought he was refusing to debate his opponent, Doctor Mehmet Oz, instead seeking to run out the clock by not agreeing to a debate until many Pennsylvanians had already voted.     


I also defended an NBC reporter who was criticized for noting that Fetterman had trouble understanding her “small talk” before her interview with him began.  Basically, I thought the coverage of Fetterman was being determined by empathy, not objectivity, when the facts demanded both.   


So now comes the news that the junior Senator from Pennsylvania admitted himself to Walter Reid National Military Medical Center on Wednesday night for treatment of clinical depression. Fetterman’s office released a statement saying:  


“While John has experienced depression off and on throughout his life, it only became severe in recent weeks.

… he is receiving treatment on a voluntary basis.  

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.” 


This is Fetterman’s second hospital stay in as many weeks.  He was recently admitted to George Washington University Hospital after feeling lightheaded at a retreat for Democratic senators.  Thankfully, tests ruled out a second stroke.  The more recent hospitalization is Fetterman’s first public acknowledgement of a mental health issue.  His wife tweeted this:  


“After what he’s been through in the past year, there’s probably no one who wanted to talk about his own health less than John. I’m so proud of him for asking for help and getting the care he needs.” 


The New York Times provided this useful insight – that after his stroke, Fetterman soon jumped back into campaigning into the tight Senate race:

And now,

“the possibility that he may have missed out on a crucial recovery period has become a source of pain and frustration for Mr. Fetterman and people close to him, who fear that he may suffer long-term and potentially permanent repercussions. His schedule as a freshman senator has meant that he has continued to push himself in ways that people close to him worry are detrimental.”


A senior aide told NBC News that Fetterman is likely to have “a few weeks” of inpatient care, and that doctors are trying different medications and dosages.  


And I say, more power to him. We need a role model right now. Here’s hoping he fills that bill.     


Fetterman’s hospital admission came the same week as the release of a CDC report documenting a mental health crisis among American adolescents, particularly our girls. They surveyed more than 17,000 teenagers, across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  In 2021, the percentage of high school students who experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” was 42% – up from 28% a decade earlier.  When you break it down by gender: 57% female, 29% male.  And in 2011, the share of high school students who seriously considered attempting suicide was 16 %. In 2021, it had risen to 22%. 


Stop and contemplate that – more than one in five American teens has seriously considered attempting suicide.  And among girls – that number is 30%. And the numbers on depression and suicidal thoughts are even higher in the LGBTQ+ community. The fact is, society doesn’t treat brain and physical health the same. There remains a stigma to the former. Which causes those afflicted to remain in the shadows.   


Schools, workplaces, health care plans, and American society in general still don’t treat those with mental illness the same as those with a physical affliction.  


Think about it.   


God forbid someone in your orbit gets cancer, people rush to raise go-fund me money, bake cakes and help take care of their children.  But if the affliction is anxiety or depression?  Many will shun even those they know – and that’s if the illness is made public at all.   


Insurance coverage is often not equitable.  Many mental health providers refuse the paperwork of participation, leaving people in need to scramble for scarce treatment resources.  Too many go untreated, but maybe John Fetterman can change that. Perhaps he can become the face of a mental health epidemic from which we are all one degree of separation.   


Fifty years ago, senator Thomas Eagleton was dropped from the democratic ticket headed by senator George McGovern after it was revealed that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression which included electroshock therapy.  That would never have happened if Eagleton had suffered a physical ailment.   


Fetterman is so high-profile, in part due to the attention already given his stroke and his flipping Pennsylvania to give the Democrats their slim majority – that perhaps he will finally elevate awareness in a watershed way and help our culture re-think the way we treat brain health.  


Dr. Nassir Ghaemi is a psychiatrist on staff at Tufts University and the Harvard Medical School. He is the author of a book called A First-Rate MadnessDrawing on the medical records of world leaders in history, Ghaemi makes the case that some of our best leaders have battled mental illness.  Ghaemi argues that the best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal.  The worst crisis leaders are mentally “healthy.”   


People with mild manic symptoms are more creative and more resilient to stress than normal mentally-healthy people. And so these four traits of creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism which occur in manic depressive illness and depression and bipolar illness, are seen in some of our best crisis leaders …Churchill, Lincoln, and others, who had these conditions, had these traits as part of their psychological makeup, and also showed those traits as benefits of their leadership in times of crisis, I should say not always, but in times of crisis when you need them the most.


But this isn’t just about public figures, or whether or not they can still thrive. Hopefully this will help others who are suffering and need help. be it our family, friends, and neighbors. We all benefit.


Godspeed to Senator Fetterman.


Michael Smerconish

Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.

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