John Fetterman’s battle with depression highlights the stigma of mental illness
By April Koh
When Senator John Fetterman voluntarily checked himself into Walter Reed to receive treatment for clinical depression on Wednesday night, he joined the one in 4 adults who suffer from a diagnosable mental illness each year. But unlike most of these individuals, his choice to seek care is national news—and has led to questions about his ability to serve in Congress. It’s an unfortunate reminder of the stigma that still exists around mental illness.
The trauma and stressors of the pandemic shined a spotlight on America’s mental health crisis. More than 50 million U.S. adults experienced a mental illness in 2020, while 12 million reported serious thoughts of suicide. This crisis is especially acute among young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research out this week found that more than 40% of U.S. high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they could not participate in regular activities for at least two weeks within the past year. The findings around teen girls were even more alarming: Nearly 3 in 5 said they felt persistently sad or hopeless, and 30% said they have seriously considered dying by suicide.
Despite these numbers, more than half of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment. That’s 28 million people who are suffering, often in silence. The news is even worse for young people: almost 60% with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment.
The reasons for this lack of treatment are myriad, ranging from affordability to a shortage in mental health care professionals. But one of the biggest factors that can lead people to delay or avoid treatment is stigma—the fear of judgment or discrimination from individuals and institutions, as well as internalized shame about their own condition.
Normalizing mental health conditions is one of our most powerful tools for combating the stigma and getting people the treatment they need. Because make no mistake: Mental health care interventions work. A recent peer-reviewed study about our work at Spring Health shows that when people can access high-quality, precision mental health care, almost 70% of participants show reliable improvement from their symptoms of depression and anxiety—and it can take less than 6 weeks on average for patients to enter remission.
Senator Fetterman should be celebrated for not only seeking treatment, but also for being honest and transparent about his struggles with depression. His candor will likely encourage others to pursue treatment, and it may even save lives. But because he is a professional politician, some critics are already using his condition as just another political football. This is a disservice to both Senator Fetterman and the millions of people like him who suffer from mental illness each year. We must model empathy and think about the impact of our words. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
April Koh is the cofounder and CEO of Spring Health.