One Man’s Courage

Ever since I first heard of John Fetterman, when he was running for the seat he currently holds in the U.S. Senate, I’ve admired the man.  He has courage, intellect, and humanity – things his opponent in that race lacked.  Senator Fetterman has been through a lot, and today Dan Rather’s piece gives him the respect he has earned, as well as reminding us that mental health issues deserve to be treated with empathy and compassion, not as a stigma.

A Different Politician’s Story

A plea for healing

Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

04 April 2023

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. 

14 thoughts on “One Man’s Courage

    • Yes, sometimes we wonder if there is any humanity left in them, but perhaps there is. He does come across well and was elected last year over one of the country’s smoothest-talking snake oil salesmen!

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  1. In about 1996 I had a panic attack that stopped me in mty tracks. I was literally paralyzed for 5 minutes. Until then I had always been in control, and the panic attack too most of my confidence in myself away. Until it happens to you, you cannot imagine what it is like to give your body a direct order and it refuses to respond. I have battled depression off and on ever since. I would wish this disease on no one (except the guy I call TrumpelstiltOrangeskin, as he sits in a jail cell trying to figure our where he went wrong. He went wrong the first time he let his father bail him out of trouble!)
    Anyway, kudos to Fetterman and anyone else who does not give in to depression (suicide is not a way out, though it seems to offer escape).

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    • I cannot begin to imagine how scary that must have been! I think most people have gone through periods of depression, some certainly more severe than others. My hat is off to John Fetterman for working through his own problems, and for showing that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.


  2. Fetterman is an inspiring individual. Wishing him a full recovery and all the best as he returns to his seat later this month.

    And thinking of you today. You must just be glued to the news!

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    • He is what I wish every politician were … a man of principle and courage! Thanks, dear Ab … but I have largely stayed away from anything with the word ‘Trump’ in it today … looking out for my own sanity!!! Yes, what is happening with Trump is important … historical … but Trump gets entirely too much media attention and it’s not healthy. There is more going on in the world!

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  3. Beautiful. By the close of the interview, there was a tear in my eye and a reaching out in my heart to a fellow human being (not to mention his incredible wife) who is fighting and overcoming the demons of depression.

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    • Mine too, mm. He stands tall (both physically and in other ways) above the crowd of politicians. Jamie Raskin is another who is facing unimaginable personal trauma — his son’s death, and now cancer — and is so very courageous. Hats off to them and I wish both Fetterman and Raskin the VERY BEST!

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  4. Having been there I can relate to what he is going through, without having the additional burden of the stroke he suffered. An admirable man, and it is sad to see that some of the scumbag tendency have taken to mocking him.

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    • Yes, there were some during his campaign back in 2022 who mocked him, but my understanding is that outside of the fringe radicals, most of his fellow senators and members of Congress are standing in support of him. At least I hope so … he is a courageous man … and I greatly admire him. And you, my friend.

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      • I’d hope that support for him would cross party boundaries though, as you say, there are some who won’t be able to get out of the gutter. Thank you, my friend 😊

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  5. I know exactly what they’re talking about when they say depression makes no sense. I’d almost feel like an idiot for having it, when I had such a good life. But that’s what depression does, it’s so insidious. I wish Senator Fetterman all the best; I admire him, too.

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    • I suspect most of us have been there to one degree or another, and that could well explain why Fetterman has had some bi-partisan support in these divisive times when right and left don’t even seem to exist on the same plane. I, too, wish him the best and hope he does such a great job for Pennsylvania that he’s a shoe-in next year for re-election! There are few politicians — Jamie Raskin is another — who have shown such remarkable personal courage.

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  6. Pingback: One Man’s Courage — Filosofa’s Word | Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News

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