'Stigma is not yet broken.' Lawmakers share stories on mental health with Fetterman hospitalized
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 any time day or night, or chat online at 988lifeline.org. Additional mental health resources can be found at the end of this article.
WASHINGTON – Sen. John Fetterman is not alone.
As the Pennsylvania Democrat remains hospitalized for clinical depression – a medical condition impacting half the country – members and former members of Congress shared personal stories with USA TODAY that show even the nation's political leaders are not spared this struggle.
"There's no need to hide it. There's no need to be ashamed of it," Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., told USA TODAY.
The nation's elite political class who have experienced mental illness come from wealthy and poor backgrounds alike. They've had advantages. They've had disadvantages.
They are proof depression can impact anyone – and doesn't always need a reason to begin – and there's help available.
Hospitalized for depression, then hope
Torres experienced food insecurity growing up in New York's Throggs Neck public housing, with broken heaters in cold winters and extensive mold.
Across the street from his childhood home, where he was raised by a single mother, was a Donald Trump golf course that New York City poured $100 million into.
He earned a spot at New York University, which has one of the most exclusive admission rates in the country. But during his freshman year, his grandmother died.
He dropped out during his sophomore year – a decision he now links to major depressive disorder.
He was diagnosed in 2010, when he was hospitalized at New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Torres also suffered through suicidal ideation and spent three weeks hospitalized as he was just starting his twenties.
Despite millions who receive treatment, there are millions more suffering in silence, often afraid to reach out for help, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"It's much worse to let depression fester than to get treatment," said Torres, who described his hospital stay at New York-Presbyterian as "first-class" medical care. "There's much more to fear with untreated depression. We all have a responsibility to ourselves and our loved ones to get help when we need it."
The congressman entered treatment nearly 13 years ago when there was much more stigma around mental illness.
"The stigma is not yet broken, but it's breaking," Torres said.
Depression, anxiety, suicide levels in children rising, CDC says
Torres is especially concerned for Gen Z and generations to follow, who have lived through the rise of social media and a global pandemic, knowing both have had a tremendous impact on mental health.
At least 1 in 5 children experiences debilitating mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who ushered in the new 988 suicide and crisis line, earlier this month introduced a bill to ban social media for kids younger than 16.
"There has never been a generation this depressed, anxious, and suicidal – it's our responsibility to protect them from the root cause: social media," he said in a statement.
Stewart said it's a necessary protective measure, similar to requiring car seats and seat belts, fences around pools, and minimum ages for obtaining a driver's license.
"It's well past time that we take bold, comprehensive action for the sake of our kids," said Stewart, a father of six.
But it's not just young people, and it's not just members of Congress in fast-paced, high-stress positions.
Depression is one of the most common illnesses in the U.S. More than 57 million people were treated by physicians for mental illness in 2019, and more than 50% of Americans will experience it in their lifetime, according to the most recent data available from the CDC.
The 988 suicide and crisis hotline has received more than 300,000 calls each month since launching in July, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Torres knows firsthand how treatable it is. He said he has taken Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, every day since his treatment began in 2010 with "no shame."
For Torres, the first openly gay Afro Latino member of Congress, managing depression is still "a constant struggle" for a self-described introvert in politics.
But it's "much more manageable than a decade ago," he said.
'Every single one of us has a family history'
Several Republicans have raised concerns in recent months about the growing crisis among young people. Others have previously shared personal stories.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor, Louisiana Republican and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee,lost a nephew to suicide decades ago and spoke emotionally about it during a CNN interview in December.
Cassidy has also spoken passionately about mental health care on the Senate floor, frequently working across the aisle to fund programs aimed at improving and saving lives.
"Every single one of us has a family history," he told CNN. "A loved one, a friend, someone you know, that has serious mental illness.”
Opinion:Sen. John Fetterman and the bravery in asking for help when you need it
Embarrassed and relieved: A former GOP rep's battle with alcoholism
Former Republican Rep. John Sullivan of Oklahoma was lauded in May 2009 when he publicly sought help for alcoholism, telling constituents he wanted to be "open and honest about this tough situation." He explained that he was checking himself into the Betty Ford Center in California for his alcohol addiction.
Upon leaving rehab in July 2009, Sullivan said he was both embarrassed and relieved to come clean about his addiction. His treatment, he said, was just the beginning of his fight.
"Although this was certainly not what I had planned for my life, it has turned out to be something that has strengthened me," he said in a message to constituents at the time. "I am already back to work. All of you have stood by me in this difficult time and I will stand stronger than ever for you in the U.S. Congress."
He was reelected in 2010 but lost in 2012 to challenger Jim Bridenstine.
'I hid my treatment'
He had the power and prestige of the Kennedy mantle, but a former congressman also carried a big secret: He was receiving treatment for a mental disorder.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy was an addict, and that was hard to hide at times – particularly when he crashed his car into the Capitol while abusing multiple prescription drugs.
But he kept under wraps stints in psychiatric care for anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder.
"I hid my treatment," Kennedy, a Democrat who represented Rhode Island from 1995 to 2011, told USA TODAY.
Over that time, he was the lead sponsor of the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which required insurers to equally cover mental illnesses and physical illnesses.
"I was the author of the biggest mental health bill, and I didn't want to go to a psychiatric hospital. I had psychiatrists visit me in the regular wing of the hospital. I tried to hide it as much as I could," said Kennedy, the youngest child of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
"Sen. Fetterman will do more for people by being honest about this than anything else he'll do this year in Congress," he said.
'I thought I was just having a bad day'
Smith, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, shared her history of depression on the Senate floor on May 15, 2019.
"When it started, I thought I was just having a bad day. Or, really, a series of bad days," she said at the time.
By her second year of college, she was finding it harder to cope. Therapy helped.
Depression returned again in her 30s, and that time therapy and medication helped.
"I remember feeling like I was slowly coming out of a fog," Smith said on the Senate floor. "The color started seeping back into my life, a little more each day."
She began to reconnect with the world, family, work and hobbies, and she started to feel hopeful again. Smith eventually tapered down off the medication and hasn't needed it since then.
"There is no happily ever after when it comes to mental illness, but happier is possible," she said.
Smith has been telling her story again since Fetterman was hospitalized, adding that, "seeking help when you need it is a sign of strength, not weakness, something that John is demonstrating for all of us."
'I break the cycle and honor my dad'
Feb. 22 marked 12 years sober for Kennedy. It's also a special way he marks his late father's birthday.
"I still miss my dad, and I could have used the grief as a license to drink," he said. "But I use it as a permanent sobriety date. I break the cycle and honor my dad."
He went to 12-step meetings while he was in Congress, "but I always felt like I had to edit what I said. In Washington, nothing is really anonymous. Everybody talks."
Kennedy finished his eighth term in Congress and did not run for reelection in 2010, a year after his father died. Once he retired from the House, he entered treatment and attended meetings three times a day and saw a psychiatrist who was addiction certified.
Now, he's helping others by leading 12-step meetings every day and letting people know, "Whatever you're going through, you're not alone. You don't have to hide your feelings."
Getting better:What to know about alcohol use disorder and how to get treatment
'You can get better'
It's nearing the four-year anniversary of her late partner's suicide, and Rep. Susan Wild continues to channel her pain into legislative action.
Since Kerry Acker's death in May 2019, she has introduced six mental health bills in the House, including one that was signed into law last March: the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act.
The act is named for a late New York-Presbyterian emergency room physician who died of suicide at the height of the pandemic in April 2020. Wild's legislation funds grants to health care institutions so they can study and implement employee programs designed to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, mental and behavioral health conditions, and substance use disorders.
"We've made a lot of progress," Wild said to USA TODAY. "There's still a lot to do."
This work helped Wild win a tough reelection campaign in a purple county of battleground Pennsylvania, where independents helped to decide the race. Brendan McCabe, a 42-year-old independent voter in Easton, told USA TODAY in November he voted for her because of her mental health advocacy.
Wild said she looks forward to collaborating with Fetterman when he returns to Congress. "We can work together on these issues."
Call to action:After partner's death, Rep. Susan Wild finds new mission in suicide prevention
Mental health resources:
- If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 any time day or night, or chat online at 988lifeline.org.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.
- Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 (para español presiona el 2).
- Veteran’s Crisis Line: 988, then select 1, or text: 838255.
- Support Line for Physicians: 1-888-409-0141 – physiciansupportline.com.
- Help for Native American people: StrongHearts Native Helpline: 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483) or chat online.
- Resources for Black people: 988lifeline.org/help-yourself/black-mental-health.
- Ayuda en español: 988lifeline.org/help-yourself/en-espanol.
- Find treatment: findtreatment.gov
Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.