Does Sen. Fetterman's Depression Disclosure Signal Change in Mental Health Acceptance?Roundup
tags: masculinity, depression, mental health, Senate, medical history, disability history, John Fetterman, Thomas Eagleton
Jonathan Sadowsky is Castele professor of the history of medicine at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of Electroconvulsive Therapy in America and The Empire of Depression: A New History.
On Feb. 15, Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) checked himself into the hospital for treatment for depression. The move marked the culmination of a rough year for Fetterman, who suffered a near-fatal stroke last May. Nearly one-third of stroke survivors suffer from depression, and Fetterman has had a tough road, struggling with an auditory processing disorder that makes it hard for him to understand and render speech, while needing to manage his recovery during the stress of a hotly contested campaign.
Many have lauded Fetterman’s courage, both in seeking treatment and in disclosing his depression. Some have hoped that this disclosure will help to normalize openness about mental health, especially depression and related conditions. The acclaim hasn’t been universal. Some right-wing commentators have leaped at the chance to declare the liberal senator unqualified for office. But overall, the reaction has been more positive than negative.
Many of those applauding Fetterman see this reaction as a sign of progress. They have contrasted it with the way that 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern removed his initial running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.), from the ticket following the news that Eagleton had received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depression.
Yet, such a narrative is oversimplified, missing both some of the nuance of the Eagleton case, as well as how Fetterman’s admission, while mostly praised, also has exposed some lingering forms of stigma about depression.
On July 14, 1972, after his first few choices declined to accept the vice-presidential nomination, McGovern named Eagleton his running mate, following a background check that was minimal by today’s standards. Some in McGovern’s inner circle had heard rumors of past mental illness. According to former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who ran McGovern’s campaign, Eagleton was chosen because he was Catholic, rural and from a border state between the North and South. The press immediately started looking into Eagleton’s medical history, and on July 25, Eagleton admitted that he had been hospitalized for depression three times between 1960 and 1966, receiving ECT on two of those occasions.
When the story broke, McGovern expressed his full confidence in his running mate and vowed to keep Eagleton on the ticket. Eagleton was surprised that his medical history would be a problem. Even President Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee, agreed, saying that policy differences were what mattered to voters. Medical opinion was split. The American Psychiatric Association issued a statement assuring the public that many people recovered from depression quickly and fully after ECT treatment, but some doctors advised McGovern that the stress of high office might prove to be too much for Eagleton.
In the first three days after the news broke, millions in campaign donations were withdrawn and hedged, as contributors worried about the damage the revelations might do to McGovern’s campaign. On Aug. 1, McGovern announced that although he still believed in Eagleton’s fitness to serve, the issue had become too much of a distraction for the campaign, and Eagleton was dropped from the ticket.