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A Different Politician's Story
A plea for healing
Today the news offers wall-to-wall coverage of a politician — a former president — who is duplicitous, divisive, and vainglorious.
He is a weak man incapable of admitting to any personal fault or struggle. He is quick to blame others for any impediment he faces. He excuses his own failings. He demonizes his political opponents and weaponizes their “othering.”
These character flaws may have finally caught up with him in a court of law. We shall see. If you want more coverage of these developments, you can find them elsewhere today. In truth, almost everywhere else.
But here at Steady we want to offer a counternarrative. We also have a story about a politician, but it’s not about sordid allegations or court proceedings. It’s not even about policy or politics, per se.
It’s about health, humanity, and healing. And it’s about that fickle but essential aspiration: hope.
On April 1, U.S. Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania was discharged from Walter Reed hospital after a six-week stay to treat depression. Fetterman apparently has struggled with the disease for years, but it became worse in the wake of a stroke that nearly derailed his 2022 campaign. He now says his depression is in remission.
During the last election season, concerns about Fetterman’s physical health were widespread as he publicly navigated the difficult rehabilitation of a stroke victim. His Republican opponent, the TV doctor Mehmet Oz, made questions about Fetterman’s health a major line of attack (something we wrote about in a Steady column, “Fitness to Serve”).
At the time, we wondered about the very definition of fitness:
“Perhaps this idea of how we measure fitness is too limited. Are people who deny the results of the 2020 election fit for elective office? What about politicians who embrace lies, stoke division, and foment violence? Many doctors and scientists have warned that Oz, Fetterman’s opponent, has spread dangerous medical misinformation. How should that be factored into assessing fitness?”
And we noted that covering questions of fitness was of special concern for the press:
“Judging medical fitness is legitimate, but are we providing the audience a nuanced understanding, or are we playing into stereotypes?”
In the end, the voters of Pennsylvania chose Fetterman by nearly 5 points. It was considered a tremendous victory and framed as a personal triumph for a candidate beset by such obvious physical ailments.
We now know that it didn’t feel like a triumph for Fetterman, who was privately struggling with a second serious disease.
This Sunday, Fetterman told the story of his depression to Jane Pauley on the CBS News program “Sunday Morning.” It is an emotional journey, and we share the piece here:
(Note: In the past some Steady readers outside of the United States had trouble accessing a “Sunday Morning” piece. We apologize if that’s the case once again. Please let us know.)
It has been heartening to see that the coverage of Fetterman’s treatment for depression has been different from the reaction to his stroke. By and large, he has received bipartisan well wishes and the support of his constituents.
This is why Fetterman’s story is even bigger than the very big senator (he stands 6′8″) from the Keystone State.
Millions of Americans suffer from depression. It can destroy lives and lead to suicide. Now there are indications that the pandemic has exacerbated mental illness across the country, including depression. This trend is especially acute in children.
Historically, depression has also carried much stigma. And shame. And misunderstanding. This adds to the damage it can inflict in the shadows.
If we are going to make headway, we need to face depression and other mental illnesses with honesty and empathy. It is a major service when someone of Fetterman’s stature courageously shares their story. Those who suffer similarly can feel seen and may be encouraged to seek help. The millions more who know a friend or loved one afflicted with this horrible illness can feel part of a broader community of support.
Part of what makes depression so frustrating is that it seems to make no sense. Someone like Fetterman, who seemed to have it all — a loving family and a major professional success — can feel lost even at a moment when he should feel exhilarated. He checked himself into the hospital on his son’s birthday.
Regardless of what one may think of Fetterman’s politics, we should all wish him continued recovery for both his mental and physical ailments. It is a benefit to our nation to have people with his experiences in our government. There is a notion that politicians are supposed to be poised almost to the point of perfection. But we know they are human and subject to the same vices, biases, and illnesses as the rest of us.
We need for our leaders to understand the struggles of their fellow citizens, and there are few better foundations for this kind of understanding than shared lived experiences. This is especially important when it comes to mental health. It’s okay for people to not be okay. And we can all work for a government more responsive to the needs of its people.
Fetterman is set to return to the Senate on April 17. He will find Republican colleagues who also have made mental health a major priority. Hopefully we can continue to see a bipartisan path to progress. And health. And hope.