For decades, politicians said a 1972 presidential campaign served as a cautionary tale: Reveal your mental health struggles at your own risk. But when Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) sought treatment for depression this week, colleagues rallied around him, signaling a shift in the way those holding public office talk about mental health.
In 2019, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) feared what he was about to reveal would doom his political career. Still, he disclosed that, as a Marine veteran who fought in Iraq, he’d struggled with post-traumatic stress and sought treatment for it.
Sen. John Fetterman checks into hospital for clinical depression
“This was my greatest secret that I didn’t share with anyone in politics, because I was afraid of stories like Senator [Thomas] Eagleton,” he told The Washington Post on Thursday.
Eagleton, a Missouri Democrat and a vice-presidential nominee in 1972, had been hospitalized three times for depression and undergone electroshock therapy, a revelation that derailed his chance to serve in the White House. While presidential nominee George McGovern initially declared that he was “1,000 percent” behind his choice for vice president, he and other top Democrats eventually pressured Eagleton into withdrawing from the ticket.
Fifty years later, when Fetterman’s office announced Thursday that the freshman senator had voluntarily sought treatment for clinical depression, the reaction was far different.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz), another Iraq War veteran in Congress, tweeted: “There is never any weakness in seeking help.” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who’s spoken publicly about her own battle with depression, also said Fetterman was displaying strength, “not weakness.”
Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May, was also hospitalized earlier this month when he experienced lightheadedness. He did not suffer a second stroke, his doctors determined.
People who have suffered a stroke have a higher risk of depression than the general population. On Thursday, Fetterman’s office announced that he was receiving care at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, which was suggested by Congress’s attending physician after an evaluation.
Bob Shrum, a speechwriter for the 1972 McGovern campaign, said it’s clear there has been a shift since the time when so many saw keeping Eagleton on a ballot as “politically unsustainable.”
“It was a very different, unenlightened world,” Shrum said.
Things have changed dramatically. Shrum mentioned Tipper Gore, who in 1999 disclosed that she had once been treated for depression but had since recovered. Her revelation came as her husband, Vice President Al Gore, ramped up his presidential campaign. Some commended her while noting that, in talking about it in a newspaper op-ed, she was able to disclose the information on her own terms.
“It is hard to believe she is not conscious of the political advantage of disposing of this issue up front now, early in the campaign,” Marvin Kalb, head of the Joan Shorenstein media center at Harvard University, said at the time.
But Shrum said that, thanks to Gore and people like her, “mental health problems don’t carry the stigma they once did. . . . It’s all come out of the shadows.”
Politicians such as Moulton, Gallego and Smith have been the beneficiaries of a half-century of destigmatization – and agents of it.
In 2019, Smith spoke on the Senate floor about experiencing depression in college and then again as a young mother while pushing for legislation to get more mental health resources in schools.
Some of the old mind-set still exists, Smith said in an interview, but she was confident she could weather it.
“They’re afraid you won’t be able to do your job, that you’ll be difficult to work with, afraid they can’t count on you,” she said. “All of those things are some of the stigmas – that you’re just not as strong as they thought you were.”
But, she added, it was more important to talk about and normalize depression. Smith said that, since she talked about her experience, young people now approach her to share their own experiences and to thank her for giving them permission to talk about it.
“I realized there was a power about being open and honest,” Smith said.
Gallego has written and spoken publicly about his experiences with post-traumatic stress following his service in Iraq, and also after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Over the past decade in particular, wars, the pandemic and the insurrection have helped spearhead conversations about mental health in Congress.
“It brought the conversation more to the forefront in a way that I think it’s never really been talked about before,” Gallego said.
When Gallego saw the announcement about Fetterman on Thursday, he felt proud.
“This is not an easy thing to do when you’re a leader,” he said.
Charles Nemeroff, who leads the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said when people in politics, sports and other high-profile fields speak openly about their mental health, it helps normalize it.
“I was very impressed with the fact that instead of trying to cover it up and go to a private treatment facility under an alias, that [Fetterman] and his family decided to fundamentally come out about it and fundamentally legitimize it as a medical disorder,” said Nemeroff, who also serves as president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Joshua Glasser, who wrote about Eagleton’s campaign with McGovern in the book “The Eighteen-Day Running Mate,” said Eagleton wasn’t the first to disclose his depression. Instead, a newspaper broke the news, he said.
But on Thursday, Fetterman’s office took a more “upfront” approach, Glasser said.
“I think that speaks to changed perceptions and just more knowledge about depression in general and ways to treat it,” he said.
Glasser also noted that Eagleton kept serving in the Senate and was later reelected.
“I think that’s an important point to emphasize, given Fetterman, is that here we have an example of someone who was treated for depression and was able to perform his job as senator,” Glasser said.
Eagleton’s widow, Barbara, said she understood why her husband was pressured to drop out of the presidential race. But there was a silver lining – her husband returned to Missouri “a big hero” whom everyone cheered for.
Barbara Eagleton praised Fetterman for getting help. She said she hopes he recovers quickly and returns to work in the Senate.
She summed up the difference between the political whirlwind that overwhelmed her husband more than 50 years ago and what’s happening with Fetterman.
“Folks,” she said, “are just a little more used to these things.”
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