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How Sen. John Fetterman’s depression disclosure could lift stigma surrounding mental health

His admission at Walter Reed National Military Center for clinical depression in February set off a national discussion about mental health.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said in a recent interview with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough that he was “begging” anyone struggling with their mental health to get treatment.

“It works, and it’s what saved me from my anguish,” Fetterman said in the interview.

The remarks came one month after Fetterman was discharged from a six-week stay at Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Md.

His admission there for clinical depression in February set off a national discussion about mental health.

“There is no shame in seeking help for mental illness. None. And I think that was the public message that came out from his admission to the facility,” said Christine Michaels, CEO of NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania.

That message still has not reached everyone in society, mental health advocates cautioned.

“When people think about asking for help, oftentimes they think, ‘People are going to judge me,’ especially in middle-aged white males,” said Kim McDevitt, executive director of Mental Health of America of Lancaster County.

White males accounted for 70% of suicide deaths in 2020, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

There are multiple theories for why middle-aged white males have a higher risk of dying by suicide, such as declining social connectedness, and the fact that statistically, men use more lethal methods.

Another reason, called the “cultural script theory,” is the idea that society views mental illness as a defect and those who seek mental health treatment as weak.

That mindset may be one of the reasons Fetterman did not seek help sooner, as well as a lack of education on mental illness.

“Fetterman shared that he didn't know that his symptoms were attributed to depression, and we see that a lot,” McDevitt said.

Fetterman’s health was already under scrutiny after he suffered a stroke on the campaign trail. Voters still appeared to endorse his fitness for office by electing him to the Senate. 

Mental health advocates say Fetterman’s mental illness should not be treated any differently by voters than his physical illness.

“They're clearly integrated and I don't think can be treated separately,” said Michaels of NAMA Keystone Pennsylvania.

Whether a physical or mental ailment, treatment and prevention are key, she said.

“Extinguishing stigma is a long-term goal because it stops people from seeking treatment. He probably has no idea how much good he did by being public,” she said.

Mental health advocates say Fetterman’s high profile could inspire others struggling with their mental health to get treatment. 

“I'm hoping that by Fetterman coming forward, he will use this platform to promote mental health and treatment, and I think that's significant,” McDevitt said.

Fetterman’s team declined to comment for this story.

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