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After a ‘rough’ start, Sen. Fetterman opens up about his mental health journey

‘I’ve been there and I’m begging you, keep yourself in the game,’ Democrat says in Aspen

Sen. John Fetterman,  pictured here on June 4, spoke at the Aspen Ideas: Health conference over the weekend about depression, saying he wants to share his story to help others.
Sen. John Fetterman, pictured here on June 4, spoke at the Aspen Ideas: Health conference over the weekend about depression, saying he wants to share his story to help others. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ASPEN, Colo. —  It wasn’t the 2022 election that nearly killed Sen. John Fetterman.

By his own account, it was the aftermath. 

The Pennsylvania Democrat has been candid about his personal experience with depression and self-harm, shining a spotlight on what can still be a taboo subject for many Americans.

“Back when all this was going on, I assumed that this would be the end of a career, or it was going to turn into an untenable situation,” Fetterman said at this year’s Aspen Ideas: Health conference.

Instead, he saw the opposite. Now, he and his wife hear nearly every day from people who say his story resonated with them or encouraged them to seek help, he said during a Saturday conference session.   

“I can’t believe that it may have reached that many people, and I just want to be the voice that I would have wanted to have heard during that time,” he said.

Slow build

The last two years, in Fetterman’s own words, have been “rough.”

In 2022, he suffered from a stroke in the midst of a competitive Senate campaign. For a while, he kept his “feelings at bay,” he said. “It’s like, let’s just make it through the election at that point.” 

But after he won the election, Fetterman said he decided to do a sort of postmortem and read through social media — something that he had largely avoided during his campaign. It led him down a rabbit hole of hateful comments and viral videos, which he said reinforced the self-doubt and negative thoughts he’d been having.

“It’s a national pastime for a lot of people. It really is, and I don’t get it,” he said, referring to online hate.

Fetterman clarified that it wasn’t what the individual messages said, but the fact that it fueled his doubts about his new career and how it would affect his family.   

“Don’t turn to social media for affirmation, or to make your day brighter,” he said. “That’s what really allowed the depression to take root.”

The senator checked himself into treatment in February 2023 and spent six weeks there before returning home in remission.

Fetterman said he supports Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s recent call to require social media to include a warning label for youth about its health impacts. Cigarette companies, he said, also initially targeted teens to establish a lifelong relationship. 

But enacting that kind of change would require congressional action.

“I think that’s a great idea, whatever that looks like,” he said. 

The Aspen event was moderated by CNN journalist Elizabeth Cohen and came roughly two weeks after Fetterman, speeding, was in a Maryland car accident that police said was his fault.

It gets better  

Fetterman said he is fully in remission from his depression but acknowledged not everyone’s experience is the same.

“I don’t know what your path is to recovery, what that looks [like], and the kinds of issues that you are facing,” he said. “I’ve been there and I’m begging you, keep yourself in the game.”

Depression, for him, fed on his spirit a little bit at a time. He described it as an urgent “burn” in his mind he was racing to avoid, but it kept becoming more and more difficult to do so. 

The senator is also increasingly worried about the suicide crisis in the United States, which saw about 50,000 annual deaths for the first time in 2022. As far as he knows, he said, he’s the first elected official to talk publicly and candidly about their experience with self-harm. 

“At first I pretended that I didn’t have that conversation with myself, and I didn’t talk about that,” he said, referring to suicidal ideation. “Then I realized that if I’m going to be honest and to be really helpful and to be grateful to the place that I’m in now today, then I have to talk about that.”

Since then, he said, even President Joe Biden has talked about having similar feelings after the death of family members. Fetterman said he has lost two friends to suicide, both fathers with young children. 

The senator described hitting his “emergency brake” and seeking help as he started worrying about how he would affect his own kids and their future.

“I can’t be that legacy,” Fetterman said, adding he feels lucky he has a second chance. 

“When you’re in that dark place, you make that emergency brake work,” he said. “I just want to be that voice in anyone’s situation to break that cycle.”

If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis, please call the toll-free, 24-hour 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8 to be connected to a trained counselor.