Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who suffered a near-fatal stroke in the midst of his campaign last year, checked himself into the hospital on Wednesday evening to receive treatment for clinical depression, a remarkable disclosure from a politician about mental health.
“While John has experienced depression off and on throughout his life, it only became severe in recent weeks,” Jentleson said. “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.”
Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, who is in Pennsylvania with their three children, sent an email to supporters sharing the news about her husband’s health.
“Anyone who has experienced depression — or loved someone experiencing depression — knows that this is a heartbreaking disease,” she wrote. “Our family is in for some difficult days ahead, and we ask for your compassion on the path to recovery. For us, the kids will always come first.”
The senator had just returned to Congress on Monday after being hospitalized last week at George Washington University Hospital for lightheadedness during a retreat for Democratic senators, his spokesman Joe Calvello said then. His doctors ruled out that he’d suffered a second stroke.
Fetterman, 53, had a stroke in May, days before he overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. He spent Election Day in surgery having a defibrillator installed. His campaign later disclosed that Fetterman had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy years prior and had not followed the recommended medical advice for his condition.
The stroke, which sidelined Fetterman from the campaign for about two months, left Fetterman with an auditory processing disorder that inhibited his ability to hear, especially when there is competing background noise. In mid-August, he resumed public campaign events, where he spoke openly about his health setback and recovery. At his rallies, he’d ask people to raise their hands if they or someone they loved ever dealt with a serious health condition. Rally after rally, scores of hands went up.
“I’ll be much better in January, but [Mehmet] Oz will still be a fraud,” Fetterman would say of his Republican opponent, who was famous for hosting a medical advice talk show.
Fetterman went on to beat the celebrity doctor in November to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, flipping a seat that helped Democrats increase their Senate majority. But come January, Fetterman’s hearing disorder was not better as he’d hoped. The Senate installed assistive technology that translates speech in real time to help him follow along on the chamber floor and in committee hearings. He also carries an iPad that converts talk to text for hallway conversations and meetings.
A senior aide who served on both the campaign and his Senate staff said Fetterman has been more withdrawn since coming to Washington. The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the senator’s health, said it was a major departure from Fetterman post-stroke, when he was eager to get back out on the campaign trail.
“It’s tough being away from home, he’s someone who isn’t the most patient guy, and it’s been tough going to D.C. when he’s still dealing with auditory processing issues,” the aide said.
Before Fetterman went to the hospital on Wednesday, he attended an Environment and Public Works hearing on clean fuels and asked a question. Around midday, he met with kids from a Pennsylvania YMCA and joked around with them, the aide said.
Fetterman’s admission of his mental illness is rare for a politician, but comes amid efforts in recent years to end stigmas around mental health. In 1972, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, a Democrat from Missouri, withdrew his name as George McGovern’s running mate after disclosing he had undergone electroshock therapy for clinical depression.
Since then, celebrities, athletes and other prominent figures have been public about their personal mental health struggles. After the news of Fetterman’s hospitalization, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) shared that he had been hospitalized for depression in 2010.
“I would not be alive, let alone in Congress, were it not for mental health care. Millions of Americans are rooting for you, Senator,” Torres wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) released a statement that referenced her life partner’s death by suicide in 2019 and wrote that it was important there was no stigma in receiving mental health care. “Senator John Fetterman has shown himself to be a courageous leader in sharing the circumstances of his hospitalization with the public,” Wild said.
Studies consistently show about 30 percent of people who survive life-threatening events that require intensive care develop symptoms of depression, according to James Jackson, director of the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt Medical Center.
Those symptoms include sadness, which is typically associated with depression, but also increased social withdrawal, fatigue, brain fog, and reduced motivation and appetite, he said.
“It’s not a situation you anticipated. It’s not something you planned on. That’s why it’s so derailing,” he said. “There’s an abruptness to it.”
For people who have suffered strokes, the risk of depression is likely greater, experts said, because they often lose physical mobility or some other natural ability, like in Fetterman’s case, his auditory processing.
And in a stroke, there is an injury to the organ that is also involved in mental health — the brain, said Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health who is also a psychologist and neuroscientist. He said the organic component of depression after stroke should not be overlooked.
“There are studies that show that compared to all other forms of depression, stroke-induced depression tends to be more severe,” Gordon said.
Data show Fetterman’s chances of full recovery at 70 to 90 percent, Gordon said. That doesn’t mean the senator won’t need to stay on medication or continue therapy, but in all likelihood he will find relief from symptoms of his depression and return to normal functioning.
Currently, both of Pennsylvania’s Democratic senators are out of the Senate for health reasons.
Fetterman’s colleague, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., underwent successful surgery for prostate cancer on Tuesday, his office said. Casey, 62, announced the cancer diagnosis and planned surgery in January. The senator said he was expected to make a full recovery.
Because Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate, any absence could affect their agenda. But with Republicans in control of the House, there isn’t much major legislation currently under consideration in a divided government.
The news of Fetterman’s hospitalization caught senators by surprise, as reporters shared Jentleson’s statement with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
“I stand by John Fetterman and his family,” Durbin said. “This is a challenge, an unimaginable challenge that he has faced in life. He deserves the very best and professional care, and I’m sure he’ll get it.”
Durbin noted that Fetterman has been attending Democrats’ luncheons and voting regularly. He also participated in an all-senators briefing on China on Wednesday.
Durbin added that, with the proper care, “which he will receive,” Fetterman will “be back in our ranks.”
Former congressman Conor Lamb also rallied to support Fetterman, who beat him in the Democratic Senate primary. Lamb, who served in the Marines, tweeted, “In the USMC people take themselves off the job at times. I’ve seen it. It’s encouraged.”
“Leaving no one behind means helping them get back to 100%, whether @JohnFetterman or anyone,” Lamb wrote. “Amazing all the tough guys commenting today who don’t know how real men deal with these issues.”
In a tweet, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote: “Happy to hear @SenFettermanPA is getting the help he needs and deserves. Millions of Americans, like John, struggle with depression each day. I am looking forward to seeing him return to the Senate soon. Sending love and support to John, Gisele, and their family.”
Happy to hear @SenFettermanPA is getting the help he needs and deserves. Millions of Americans, like John, struggle with depression each day. I am looking forward to seeing him return to the Senate soon. Sending love and support to John, Gisele, and their family.— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) February 16, 2023
Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.