Experts: Senate job not to blame for Fetterman health concerns

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Feb. 26—The eyes of the country were watching Democratic U.S. Sen. John Fetterman as the former Braddock mayor and Pennsylvania lieutenant governor took office in January, just months after his recovery from a life-threatening stroke.

Just weeks into the job, Fetterman checked himself into the hospital in early February for tests and last week sought inpatient care for clinical depression.

His situation, although in the public eye, is not unusual.

Experts who spoke last week with the Tribune-Review said stressors associated with the start of a new career while still in recovery mode from a serious medical ailment can contribute to chronic mental health issues. With proper treatment these issues do not have to be an obstacle to future job performance, they said.

"Regardless of a person's history, starting a new job can be a big adjustment that can bring up uncertainty and all kinds of symptoms," said Dr. Alicia Kaplan, a psychiatrist who serves as the medical director for Allegheny Health Network's Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Center in Pittsburgh.

Fetterman's office issued a statement earlier this month that said the freshman senator "has experienced depression off and on throughout his life," but began struggling with "severe" depression in recent weeks.

Fetterman suffered a near-fatal stoke in May prior to last year's primary election and slowly returned to the campaign trail over the summer and into the fall. He announced in the later days of the campaign he suffered from auditory processing issues that continued as he began work in his new elected role that required him to use a tablet with closed captioning to monitor debate on Senate floor.

Earlier this month, Fetterman was hospitalized after feeling lightheaded during a Senate Democratic retreat. He underwent several tests, and doctors ruled out another stroke.

Kaplan, who did not comment on Fetterman's specific diagnosis or prognosis, said anyone can be susceptible to stress, especially when dealing with dramatic life changes. Those with existing physical and mental health conditions can be at a heightened risk.

"We often look at major job changes, even a new job as a positive thing, but it can also be a big change," Kaplan said.

Dr. Gabriel Feldman, a New York-based physician who has studied the health effects associated with serving in Congress said Fetterman's new job, while carrying a significant amount of stress, historically does not create a unique risk to a member's health and safety.

"Every individual there is very motivated to take a once in a lifetime position. There is a stress, but U.S. senators are extremely healthy and usually live longer because they get better health care than most U.S. citizens," Feldman said. "Depression is the common cold of psychology and I'm not surprised if there are a lot of politicians having mental health issues."

Fetterman's staff did not respond to requests for comments.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's other Democratic Senator, Bob Casey, is also dealing with health issues. He is recovering from recent prostate cancer surgery.

Feldman said Fetterman and Casey's jobs are not to blame for their health issues.

"Frankly, I'm not concerned about the health of our government officials, mentally or physically. The job doesn't affect their mortality rate. Sure it may come to it that we will have to have them undergo routine testing, but it seems to be just another step for people selected for high-powered work," Feldman said.

Kaplan suggested job stress and depression aren't uncommon and can be treated to allow patients to return to a regular work schedule.

"The only people who understand what someone is going through is the patient themselves and their doctor," she said.

Hospitalization for depression is a signal of a serious condition, but it does not preclude a patient from making a full recovery, she said.

"Some people really respond quickly to treatment but some people may need a little more time," Kaplan said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .