Sen. John Fetterman Aims to Help Others With His Depression Disclosure

by Staff Writer
January 2, 2024 at 10:05 AM UTC

Senator Fetterman's struggle with depression intensified after his stroke, highlighting the neurological and emotional impacts of such health events.

Clinical Relevance: Many patients with stroke experience depression

  • Sen. Fetterman of Pennsylvania openly discussed his mental health challenges, breaking stigma around depression in public life.
  • Fetterman recalled how his depression intensified after his stroke, highlighting the neurological and emotional impacts of such health events.
  • Fetterman’s admission to Walter Reed for treatment and his subsequent recovery stress the importance of seeking help.

Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania said he thought his very public bout with depression would kill his political ambitions. Fetterman checked himself into the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, last February, because “there was nowhere else to go” and “there wasn’t any hope.”

“When it got released where I was and where it was going, it was a big story. And so, I had assumed that that would be the end of my career,” he told NBC’s Meet The Press over the weekend. 

Stroke and Depression

The Senator underwent treatment for clinical depression while simultaneously managing the effects of a stroke he experienced during the intensely competitive Senate campaign. Doctors implanted a pacemaker with a defibrillator to manage two heart conditions, atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy.

“My heart technically stopped, and it was a very touch-and-go situation,” said the 54-year-old senator.

It’s not uncommon for someone who has had a stroke to slip into depression as a result of neurological damage. Stroke can damage the prefrontal cortex and limbic system in the brain, disrupting key neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that regulate mood. Inflammation and changes in the immune system further exacerbate biochemical imbalances, heightening depressive symptoms.

Emotionally, stroke survivors face a sudden loss of physical abilities and independence. This can add to feelings of helplessness and grief. Adapting to these life changes and the fear of another stroke can be overwhelming and intensify the risk of depression.

A Lifelong Problem

However, Fetterman admitted that he has been living with depression on and off for most of his life. His senate victory should have been the height of his political career. Instead, he couldn’t get out of bed, he told host Kristen Welker. 

“I really scared my kids, and they thought, ’You won, Dad. Why aren’t we enough? Why are you still so sad? Why are you even more sad?’ And it was hard for — to explain why I was. And, of course, a 9-year-old child wouldn’t understand that. And it was awful,” he recalled.

He said his aides described him at the time as being withdrawn and uninterested in eating, discussing work, or engaging with his staff despite the holidays being his favorite time of year. Shortly after his swearing-in, he admitted himself to Walter Reed for two months of treatment. He now says he is in remission, with no lingering symptoms of depression.

A National Epidemic

Fetterman is just one of a growing number of Americans who live with some level of depression. As of 2021, approximately 21 million adults in the United States experienced at least one major depressive episode, representing more than eight percent of the adult population. Additionally, an estimated 14.5 million U.S. adults had a major depressive episode with severe impairment.

Depression rates have been climbing. A 2023 Gallup report found that the percentage of U.S. adults diagnosed with depression at some point in their lifetime had reached 29 percent, a nearly 10 point jump from 2015

The COVID pandemic made things worse. A study conducted by researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health found that the prevalence of depression symptoms in the US more than tripled to 27.8 percent of adults at the height of the pandemic​. 

And, as Senator Fetterman pointed out, social media use has become “an accelerant for the mental health crisis”. He said he still used social media but with limits. 

Getting Help for Depression

Rather than derailing his political career, Fetterman said he has received overwhelming support. Unlike many people, he noted that he was fortunate to have access to good mental health care. He says he hopes that sharing his story will help others seek the kind of treatment that helped him “come out of the darkness”.

In opening up about his depression Fetterman has added to the national conversation on mental health. He offered a message of hope to anyone facing the same problem:  “I know that last year’s was desolate. And this year’s might be desolate. Next year’s can be the best ever. And that’s what happened for me.”

Anyone needing immediate help for mental health can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. It’s available 24-hours a day, 365 days a year for free.

Further reading:

Spinal Cord Stimulation Appears to Alleviate Depression Symptoms

Interim Results From the Open-Label, Phase 3 SHORELINE Study

3 Key Studies on Brain Zaps in Antidepressant Withdrawal

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