Going public with mental illness and substance use disorders requires courage for anyone in the public eye. Unfortunately, the prospect of negative reactions can lead political leaders to stay silent. Yet, in recent years we see positive signs of a shift in attitudes around mental illness concerns.
By: Natalie Sarsfield
Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) recently shared his mental health journey when he checked into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for clinical depression. Fetterman suffered a stroke last year and has dealt with what he describes as a turbulent, lifelong journey with depression. He was advised to seek professional care.
After his announcement, Senator Fetterman received support from political leaders and the public, with many applauding his transparency.
“John, Gisele — Jill and I are thinking about your family today. Millions of people struggle with depression every day, often in private,” tweeted President Joe Biden. “Getting the care you need is brave and important. We’re grateful to you for leading by example.”
Fetterman is one of a handful of members of Congress who have publicly disclosed mental health struggles in recent years. In the current Congress, Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota, Representative Ritchie Torres of New York and Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona have all discussed mental health challenges.
Former Representative of Rhode Island Patrick J. Kennedy touched on his experience with mental illness and drug addiction while serving in Congress in a recent interview with the National Public Radio show ‘All Things Considered,’ following Fetterman’s announcement.
“How do we distinguish between the illness and the person? So I am not my addiction. I am a person with addiction,” said Kennedy. “And Senator Fetterman is a beautiful human being who happens to have a brain illness that can be treated.”
After his time in Congress, Kennedy founded The Kennedy Forum, a nationally-recognized non-profit organization dedicated to transforming substance use disorder and mental health care.
Lynn Rivers served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from Michigan from 1995 to 2003 and is known for her early advocacy for mental health awareness. In 2016, she gave a TedTalk at her alma mater, the University of Michigan, where she shared her journey and story of defiance, resiliency and hope.
“My brain is a little different than others, but different doesn’t mean defective,” said Rivers in her speech. “I want people to look ‘crazy’ in the face and reconsider what they think they know about mental illness, what they think they know about the people who have mental illness.”
Rivers was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 21 and shared that diagnosis in 1994 while actively campaigning. Now, two decades out of office, she continues to be a role model and advocate for mental health.
While there has been some limited negative reaction to Senator Fetterman’s announcement, the encouragement he’s received suggests a changing culture surrounding the acceptance of mental illness. More conversations and openness from those in power surrounding the topic will lead to more understanding and support for people of any background needing care.