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Fetterman’s decision to seek mental health treatment gets support from voters & lawmakers

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks during a campaign event in York, Pa., Oct. 8, 2022.
Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks during a campaign event in York, Pa.

Pennsylvania voters and some fellow lawmakers say they support U.S. Sen. John Fetterman’s decision to check himself in for clinical depression treatment.

Fetterman’s staff shared Thursday that the junior senator has struggled with depression for years, but it only recently became severe enough for a doctor to recommend a hospital stay. On Friday, they said he will probably remain at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C, for the next few weeks. The Associated Press reports he is not expected to resign his position.

The former Pennsylvania lieutenant governor suffered a stroke last May, and was hospitalized earlier this month after feeling lightheaded. Medical experts from places like the American Heart Association say Fetterman’s depression is a likely aftershock from the stroke.

Despite the health challenges that have plagued Fetterman publicly for months, some voters are expressing confidence in his ability to do the demanding job. Lebanon County independent voter Tom Maiello, a member of WITF’s Capitol News Chatter texting club, extended sympathy for Fetterman’s depression treatment.

“Granting some grace is a good thing to do. Let the guy get healed. I appreciate his honesty,” Maiello said. “The grace you extend is the grace you get.”

Maiello admitted the situation could become worrisome depending on how long Fetterman is hospitalized, and if that will affect his duties.

“If he’s in the hospital for six months, that’s a different issue. I think he can do it, so let’s work with him and see how this plays out,” he said.

Danielle Gross, who works as the communication director for Harrisburg public relations firm Clear Point Communications, added sympathy and understanding should be the order of the day.

“I think we need to normalize the idea that elected officials are people, and we should give elected officials the same grace and understanding we give our friends and loved ones when they face issues that keep them from work,” Gross said.

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Democratic and Republican lawmakers are also sending Fetterman messages of support.

Congressman Scott Perry (R, PA-10) is among those who did so on Twitter, writing he hopes Fetterman and others suffering from depression receive “strength, peace and support.”

State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D, Chester County) said she sympathizes. She said she’s seen colleagues in the Pennsylvania House privately struggle with physical and mental health challenges, adding that internal discussions among Democrats about new House rules have included what to do if a lawmaker is absent due to a chronic health issue.

“I’ve had issues with my children. My father-in-law got sick and passed away last year. [We’re] managing real life,” Friel Otten said.

The two-term state lawmaker argues Fetterman should be allowed to make his own decision about what to do next.

“I would certainly respect if he felt what is best for his health and his family is to step down to focus on getting better. I also respect his choice to stay in office and work through his struggle,” Friel Otten said.

Some political researchers said the reaction demonstrates that public perception of mental health struggles is evolving.

“I do think that we are at a place where people are expected to be open about who they are on a lot of fronts,” Franklin & Marshall College Center of Opinion Research Director Berwood Yost said. “This is no longer considered disqualifying as it once was."

“Part of [Fetterman’s] brand is to be a truth teller and a pragmatist. This openness fits how he’s portrayed himself over time,” Yost added.

Fetterman is not the only high-ranking official to be facing a health challenge. Pennsylvania’s other U.S. Senator, Bob Casey, underwent prostate cancer surgery Tuesday and is expected to fully recover.

Their illnesses could have political effects. Democrats control the U.S. Senate with a 51-49 majority. Extended absences could affect the party’s ability to whip votes for legislation. If either vacates his post, the Gov. Josh Shapiro would choose an interim to serve in until the next General Election.

That happened at least once before in recent state political history. In April 1991, Sen. John Heinz was killed in a mid-air collision. That year’s special election to fill the seat saw Democrat Harris Wofford defeat Republican Dick Thornburgh.