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After a whirlwind year, John Fetterman is back in the Senate

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) speaks to reporters on the way to the weekly Senate Policy Luncheons at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 18, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker
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Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) speaks to reporters on the way to the weekly Senate Policy Luncheons at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 18, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Who is he? John Fetterman is a recently elected Democratic Senator representing Pennsylvania. Though his election victory against TV personality Mehmet Oz was the subject of national attention, Fetterman's own health problems have been at the forefront of his tenure so far.

  • In May of last year, Fetterman suffered from a stroke while on the election trail.
  • NPR's Lexie Schapitl and Rhitu Chatterjee reported that Fetterman was sidelined from midterm campaigning for two months, and soon after had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted to regulate his heart rhythm. 
  • The incident also left him with new auditory processing challenges, all while giving speeches and debating, and eventually winning the seat, with critics questioning his capacity to hold the position.   
  • Then in February, after a hospital visit related to lightheadedness, Fetterman checked himself into Walter Reed medical center to receive treatment for clinical depression. 
  • What's the big deal? Fetterman's public acknowledgement of his own mental health struggles is rare for politicians, even as depression has become an increasinglycommon challenge for Americans.

  • After six weeks of treatment at Walter Reed National Medical Center's neuro-psychology unit, Fetterman says his doctor told him his depression was in remission.  
  • Depression in stroke survivors is fairly common. NPR's Rhitu Chaterjee also reported that around30% of stroke patients will go on to have depression in the first five years after the stroke. That risk increases if they've already dealt with depression in the past, like Fetterman. 
  • With his transparency,  Fetterman has created a platform for discussing mental health issues, and encouraged other politicians to share their own stories

  • For a more in-depth exploration, Listen to Consider This dive into how to talk about politicians and mental health.

    What are people saying? Fetterman spoke with NPR's Scott Detrow in his first interview upon his return to the Senate floor.

    On his return to the Senate:

    It was just a big smile. I've really missed being here. And when I was in the throes of depression, if I was being 100% honest, I was not the kind of Senator that was deserved by Pennsylvanians. I wasn't the kind of partner that I owe to my wife, Gisele, or to my children, Karl, Grace, and August.  

    So to now, [hearing] one of the best sentences that I ever heard in my life was my doctors just sitting when we were in a meeting, and they said,  

    'John, we believe your depression is in remission.' And at first I didn't believe that.... and I was just blown away. And, now, my depression is in remission. And that's why coming back home and coming back to the Senate, and to coming back to being in the gym, being a member of the general public, has been a joy. 

    On the extent of his struggle with depression:

    I was so depressed that I didn't even realize I was depressed.  I didn't even understand it. This, to me, just became the new normal. I wasn't realizing [that] I wasn't eating. I didn't realize that I wasn't really drinking much.    

    I dropped 25 pounds. And sometimes I would say things, incoherent things and I would become kind of just [disoriented], and getting lost walking around in Washington.  

    And then finally, when it was all decided that I needed to take this option that was provided to me. I realized that I knew something was wrong. They knew that I wasn't right. But even at that moment, I still kind of pushed back about it too, sometimes saying 'Are you sure, I don't really need it.' Because then when it really comes to that choice, I'm gonna walk in here and sign myself in, I thought for a second 'oh my god no, no, wait a minute. I'm fine. I - never mind I got this.' 

    On creating a platform to discuss mental health:

    I'm honored to have the ability to try to pay it forward, because I was blessed in my opportunities. I want to say the kinds of things that I would have heard years ago that got me into action. And I would tell anybody listening to this interview, if you suffer from depression, or you have a loved one,  please let them know that you don't need to just suffer with that depression.   Get treatment, and get help. If I'd had done that years ago, I would not have had to put my family and myself and my colleagues [through] that if I had gotten help.    

    So if you suffer from it, you have an opportunity to get rid of it. And I didn't believe it. But right now I'm the guy that didn't believe that I could get rid of my depression. And now I did. 

    So, what now?

  • Part of Fetterman's recovery per his doctors includes staying away from cable television news and social media – which might be good advice for everyone to follow.  
  • Fetterman is back and ready to work, but he feels most grateful for his ability to have some normalcy with his family: "Being a partner in a full [way], and being present, just taking my kids out to go and get pizza, [are] simple things I've just cherished." 
  • Read more:

  • Who bears the burden, and how much, when religious employees refuse Sabbath work?
  • Congress returns from recess with a big to-do list
  • Supreme Court leaves student loan settlement in place
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
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