Editorial: Politicians are people, too


Experiencing a depressive episode, or any mental health crisis, can be incredibly taxing.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, individuals with clinical depression experience symptoms that “affect how you feel, think and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating or working.” 

These symptoms can make completing basic human necessities a challenge, let alone working or competing in a stressful environment. 

We have seen stigmas surrounding various mental health afflictions dissipate in recent years, but recent events have exposed that holdovers from a more intolerant time remain.

These holdovers seem to especially exist in the political sphere.

What happens when a sitting U.S. Senator has a public mental health crisis?

Two weeks ago, Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), a freshman senator who recently defeated Mehmet Oz in a tight senate race, checked himself into a hospital to begin receiving treatment for clinical depression. 

Fetterman has spent his time in office, as well as a large portion of his campaign, recovering from a stroke he suffered in May — a recovery for which acute depression is a common symptom.

News of his hospitalization prompted support and well wishes from both sides of the aisle, but it also, once again, shone a spotlight on the question of Fetterman’s fitness for office that followed him throughout the second half of the campaign.

While these questions of both physical and mental health are valid, especially if Fetterman proves unable to perform his Senate duties for an extended period of time, they should not be the focus of conversation for the present moment. 

When was the last time you thought about the mental health of a politician?

It’s easy to sit back and say congresspeople have an easy job. However, being a national political figure in the public eye is a profoundly jarring position to be in.

Not that any of us know what that feels like, of course, but the job inherently comes with the two-fold sacrifice of privacy and the ability to publicly show indecision or weakness.

Forcing politicians to live their lives in the public eye as perfect caricatures of themselves is not ideal, but the intensity with which voters tend to probe into the lives of candidates looking for any imperfections makes this elaborate dance necessary.

If you are a politician, half of the country may see you as a powerful force representing their interests while the other half sees you as a supervillain intent on destroying the country they love. Any weakness to them is either a dissapointment or an opening to attack.

There’s a reason we don’t hear about politicians’ mental health struggles very often. It is not that they are all the perfect statespeople they hope to be perceived as, but that they must keep up an air of stability and perfect health in order to keep the myth — and their job — alive.

Commendably, Fetterman is braving the storm of criticism and calls for his resignation in an effort to make sure he gets the mental health care he needs.

However, this expectation of perfection in nationally recognized politicians, especially as it relates to physical and mental fitness, may have contributed to Fetterman and his team’s lack of transparency both in the present case and in the immediate aftermath of his stroke.

When faced with a situation like Fetterman’s, the solution is not to call for his immediate resignation, nor is it to permit opaque messaging and open questions of health for an extended period of time.

An ideal situation would see full transparency about health and well-being on the part of politicians, as well as a voting public that is not willing to throw out a candidate at the first sign of weakness.

Politicians deserve and should expect to be viewed with a critical eye, as that is the nature of representation. However, they are not simply a collection of ideas and soundbites to be adorned with scorn or praise.

They are human beings who think, feel and hurt just as the rest of us, who may have anxiety or be depressed like the rest of us and who deserve empathy and respect like the rest of us.

Whether he wants to or not, Fetterman is going to be the first test case for this era of openness in regard to politicians’ mental health. Only time will tell how we will respond.

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