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John Fetterman wants to 'pay it forward' by speaking openly about his depression

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) returns to the Senate after being admitted to the hospital for clinical depression.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) returns to the Senate after being admitted to the hospital for clinical depression.

Sen. John Fetterman acknowledges there was a time not that long ago, when he didn't want to talk about depression — at all. Now, the Pennsylvania Democrat, who returned to the U.S. Senate this week after taking leave in mid-February to seek treatment for clinical depression, says it's his responsibility to "pay it forward" with candor about the disease.

"I thought every night when I was laying in bed when I was in the hospital — like what if I just would have done something about this before, and I could kick myself and I just think about how my family wouldn't [have been] put through it and my constituents," he told NPR's Scott Detrow in his first broadcast interview since his return to Congress.

"But now that I am back, I'm really committed to ... letting people know: to anyone that has any of these feelings, there's a path, and you can get better."

Fetterman's colleagues cheered his return, giving him a standing ovation during the Democratic caucus meeting this week.

"I can't tell you how moving it was to me," Fetterman said. "I would have been blown away if it was just warm, but a standing ovation and hugs and big shakes and everything — and it was just — I'm so grateful to our colleagues and to Leader [Chuck] Schumer."

He added that some Senate colleagues visited him while he was receiving treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center: Democratic Sens. Tina Smith of Minnesota and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, as well as Republican Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama.

Sen. John Fetterman and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer give a thumbs up to reporters as they walk to the weekly Senate policy luncheons together at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 18.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Sen. John Fetterman and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer give a thumbs up to reporters as they walk to the weekly Senate policy luncheons together at the U.S. Capitol Building on April 18.

Fetterman sat down with Detrow in his Capitol Hill office, a windowless space that his team has decorated with posters of Philadelphia sports mascots Gritty and the Phanatic. The freshman senator — who recently learned that he can vote without wearing a suit — was wearing his signature Carhartt hoodie and grey gym shorts. He was also sporting brand-new hearing aids and using closed captioning to help process speech.

Ever since he suffered a severe stroke during his Senate campaign last year, Fetterman has had to answer questions about his health. Still, the former lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania defeated Trump-endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in November for the first open Senate seat in the state in a dozen years. His victory was a triumph for Democrats and helped cement their control of the Senate.

But Fetterman says there wasn't a moment of relief, even after coming out triumphant in the wake of an extremely competitive and toxic campaign.

"After I won, I still felt that depression — like, I felt lost," he said. "I wasn't elated. I wasn't happy about it. I was relieved that it was over. But at the same time, I never had the opportunity to recover from the stroke, and I had depression, and a lot of just the stress and everything. [I] really wasn't able to address it."

He said the pressures of political campaigning and the seemingly endless attack ads, coupled with the stroke, all led to a "perfect storm."

On addressing his illness with his family

Fetterman didn't shy away from talking about the pain his depression caused himself and his family. For instance, the day he checked himself into the hospital was his eldest son's 14th birthday.

"I always get emotional just thinking about it," he said. "I think back [to] when I was 14 years old, what if this would have been what happened to me?"

Fetterman said he fears his son will always associate his birthday with the day his father checked himself into the hospital.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) sits for an  interview with NPR. It was the first day he wore a new hearing aid, after being diagnosed with hearing loss and audio processing issues following his stroke.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., sits for an interview with NPR. It was the first day he wore a new hearing aid, after being diagnosed with hearing loss and audio processing issues following his stroke.

"My oldest son had a conversation where he was having a hard time understanding — 'why, Dad, why are you depressed? Like, you know you ran and you won.' And I tried to explain to him, like, geez, you know, Karl — I had this stroke and all of these ads and everything, and he's like, 'but aren't we enough?" he remembered through tears. "Aren't we enough?'"

Fetterman said the six weeks in treatment was "about me redeeming, trying to redeem myself in their eyes."

And he said that he's grateful for so much now that his depression is in remission.

"Being a partner in a full [way], and being present, just taking my kids out to go and get pizza [are] simple things I've just cherished."

Audio story produced by Noah Caldwell.

Audio story edited by Ashley Brown.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.