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Sen. John Fetterman talks mental health post-hospitalization: 'Message right now isn’t political'

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., was recently interviewed about his mental health at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, just days before returning home from a six-week stay. 

Fetterman flipped the pivotal Pennsylvania seat blue in defeating the Trump-endorsed Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in November despite suffering a stroke ahead of Election Day. Just a month after being sworn into Congress in January, however, Fetterman soon checked himself into Walter Reed for depression in mid-February – notably on his eldest son’s birthday.  

“I will be going home. [It will] be the first time ever to be in remission with my depression,” Fetterman recently told CBS News’ “Sunday Morning” anchor Jane Pauley on camera.  “And I can’t wait to [see] what it really feels like, to take it all in, and to start making up any lost time.”

“I found Sen. Fetterman hopeful, optimistic, ready to return to the United States Senate and his role as a dad,” Pauley said in the introduction to the 10-minute segment aired Sunday. “At 6-foot-8, Fetterman is still a formidable man despite two serious assaults on his health in less than a year. He suffered a stroke in May, and after a private struggle for years, in mid-February, he entered Walter Reed for treatment of depression. We talked there two days before he went home.” 

PENNSYLVANIA SEN. JOHN FETTERMAN RELEASED FROM HOSPITAL AFTER TREATMENT FOR DEPRESSION

Sen. John Fetterman and his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman stand during the national anthem before Josh Shapiro is sworn in as governor of Pennsylvania. Fetterman would check himself into the hospital for depression weeks later.

Sen. John Fetterman and his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman stand during the national anthem before Josh Shapiro is sworn in as governor of Pennsylvania. Fetterman would check himself into the hospital for depression weeks later. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

“He had markedly reduced motivation and drive,” David Williamson, a neuropsychiatrist and medical director at Walter Reed, said of when he began treating the senator. “The RPM in the brain, how fast you think and how clearly you think, is very substantially degraded when patients get depressed.”

“It’s reversible?” Pauley asked. “It’s certainly reversible, yes,” Williamson said. 

In a sit-down interview, Pauley noted how Fetterman took the debate stage after his stroke. “The debate performance was not you at your best. Was that fair?” she asked.

“If I’m in the race, and I made the decision to stay in the race, it’s important that I show up for debate knowing that it would be challenging. And that’s what we did,” Fetterman said. 

“It’s like you just won the biggest race in the country, and the whole thing about depression is, objectively you may have won, but depression can actually convince you that you lost,” Fetterman explained of what happened after the election victory. “And that’s exactly what happened. And that was the start of a downward spiral.” 

Fetterman says even his historic Senate win couldn't draw him out of his depressive state.

Fetterman says even his historic Senate win couldn’t draw him out of his depressive state. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Fetterman, who relied on closed captioning to read the anchor’s questions as she spoke them, explained, “I had stopped leaving my bed. I stopped eating. I was dropping weight. I stopped engaging – some of the most things that I have loved in my life. I had a conversation with my 14-year-old, and he said, ‘Dad, what’s wrong? We’re great, you’re here, and you won.’ An incredibly sad moment where my 14-year-old can’t possibly understand why you can’t get out of your bed.” 

“People who know you say that that day you looked miserable and lost,” Pauley said of the day Fetterman was sworn into Congress in January. 

“Yeah,” Fetterman said. “I was definitely depressed.” 

“I think with depression you’re always waiting for, oh that’s the thing that’s going to change it,” his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, chimed in. “He just became the senator, he’s married to me, he has amazing kids, and he’s still depressed. And I think on the outside we look and say how does this happen? But depression doesn’t certainly make sense, right? It’s not rational.”  

MEDIA WHITEWASHED FETTERMAN HEALTH ISSUES DURING ELECTION, UNCURIOUS ABOUT LENGTHY ABSENCE FROM CAPITOL

“I was at a Democratic retreat, and many of my colleagues were coming up to me and asking, ‘Why aren’t you eating?’” John Fetterman recalled. 

“Did you care if you were there or anywhere or nowhere?” Pauley asked. “As it was described to me, you were agnostic about the question of living or not at that time.” 

“I never had any self-harm, but I was indifferent though,” Fetterman said. “If the doctor said, ‘Gee, you have 18 months to live,’ I would be like, ‘Meh, well OK that’s how things go.'”

Vice President Kamala Harris swore in Sen. John Fetterman on Jan. 3, 2023. Weeks later, he'd be hospitalized at Walter Reed for depression.

Vice President Kamala Harris swore in Sen. John Fetterman on Jan. 3, 2023. Weeks later, he’d be hospitalized at Walter Reed for depression. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

“Depression doesn’t exist in the same sphere as love,” Pauley said. “So the question of how can a man not care about living in a world where those children you clearly adore are living?” 

“It makes me sad,” Fetterman said, becoming visibly emotional. “The day that I go in was my son’s birthday. And I hope that for the rest of his life his birthday be joyous, and you don’t have to remember your father was admitted.” 

“Oh, but wait, this is where your renewal began,” Pauley said. “His birthday is a day for both of you to celebrate.” 

“That’s a good way to look at it,” Fetterman responded. “I’m looking forward to doing that.” 

“You seem hopeful,” Pauley offered. “For the first time,” Fetterman agreed. “It’s a strange feeling for me to have.” 

“Your trajectory from mayor to lieutenant governor, United States senator, was still pointing up. At 53 in politics that’s a young man,” Pauley said. “Can you have aspirations? Can you serve beyond the United States Senate?

Sen. John Fetterman seen ahead of President Biden's State of the Union address in February. Fetterman checked himself into Walter Reed later that month.

Sen. John Fetterman seen ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address in February. Fetterman checked himself into Walter Reed later that month. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“My aspiration [is] to take my son to the restaurant that we were supposed to go to during his birthday but couldn’t because I had to check myself in for depression,” he responded. “And being the kind of dad, kind of husband and kind of senator that Pennsylvania deserves.” 

“My message right now isn’t political. I’m just somebody that’s suffering from depression,” Fetterman added. 

The anchor noted how doctors at Walter Reed discovered a “serious hearing deficit further complicating how his brain processes spoke language.” 

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“When I talk, what do you hear?” Pauley asked. Fetterman said, “I hear you talking, and I can understand much of what you’re… saying. But my hearing has deficiency that makes it difficult for me to fully understand, and 100% of it.” 

“At some point,” Pauley told Fetterman, “you described what you hear as like Charlie Brown’s teacher.” 

“Early on,” Fetterman explained, “That was more months and months ago. But right now, captioning is helpful for me.”  

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