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February 20, 2023

John Fetterman's decision to seek help for depression should be a tipping point for other men to do likewise

The Pennsylvania senator's actions should inspire others to cast aside outdated views on mental health conditions. They are not signs of weakness, as generations have been led to believe

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Fetterman Depression Stigmas Samuel Corum/Sipa USA

Sen. John Fetterman, of Pennsylvania, checked into a hospital last week to receive treatment for clinical depression. In doing so, he could inspire many men to shift their attitudes toward mental health.

A 50-plus man is at forefront of behavior change and an emerging cultural shift in the treatment of mental illness. As incomprehensible as this may seem given the track record of healthy behavior among men of this age, it's true.

When U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, 53, of Pennsylvania, checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last week to undergo treatment for depression, it represented a significant milestone in a mounting movement in which clinically based standards that legitimize mental health as a medical condition are replacing masculine norms that would characterize depression as a moral weakness.

Fetterman's very public action, and the overwhelming support he's received from both sides of the political aisle, builds on other high-profile men acknowledging their struggles with depression, giving those of us who advocate for men's health a sense that we may be approaching a national tipping point for a new culture of health behaviors. The outpouring of personal stories from across the nation since Fetterman's announcement would certainly suggest that the winds of change are picking up speed.

Of equal significance is the timing of Fetterman's case as the instance of mental health conditions among Americans of all ages and genders is growing. His openness just may be the trigger to prompt others to get help, and even cause fathers to recast the vision of manhood they pass on to their sons.

The stigma of mental health

The history of men and their behavior toward mental health illustrates the significance of Fetterman's announcement. The American Journal of Men's Health reports that the incidence of mental illness among men is commonly lower than women. However, the impact is greater because men are less likely to seek help. Depression and suicide are a major cause of death in men. The suicide rate among men is four times higher than women, and death from alcohol-related causes and drug misuse also ranks higher among men.

The stigma of mental illness as influenced by masculine norms is considered an extreme barrier to treatment and a factor behind these staggering statistics. This backdrop further highlights the importance of Fetterman's actions and provides additional evidence for the need to stop the passage of these cultural norms from generation to generation.

The American Psychological Association reports that the socialization of masculinity begins at a young age and is defined as "toughness, stoicism, heterosexism, self-sufficient attitudes and lack of emotional sensitivity." The Journal goes on to say that "boys live under intensified pressure to display gender-appropriate behaviors according to the ideal male code." 

The alignment between the masculine socialization in boys and health outcomes in men presents a scary state of affairs and a burning platform for behavioral change. Fortunately, John Fetterman is not alone in his leadership. Others with the status to influence change have come forward with their stories.

More high-profile cases

Fetterman's case builds on a growing body of personal transparency among other public figures. In October, I wrote about the high-profile revelations of Philadelphia Eagle Lane Johnson and former Eagles Brian Dawkins and Malcolm Jenkins, all of whom have spoken publicly about their struggles with depression and received widespread support for their courage. 

Now, as advocates for mental health care working with young men, they are redefining masculine norms and promoting the manliness of seeking care.

A mental health crisis

Americans, from teenagers to adults, indicate that the U.S. is experiencing a mental health crisis. Research before and after the pandemic, reinforces this point. 

study released last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported "increasing mental health challenges, experiences of violence, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors" among teenagers of both genders, with girls reporting the largest increases

According to the CDC, 57% of girls reported feeling persistently sad in 2021, up from 36% in 2011. Twenty-nine percent of boys felt this way in 2021, up from 21% in 2011. This most recent report is consistent with CDC data collected before the pandemic that showed mental health among high school students was getting worse.

Last fall, survey results from a poll conducted by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 90% of adults believe the United States is experiencing a mental health crisis. More than half said they have had a severe mental health crisis in their family. Though the opioid crisis was a leading factor cited in the poll, respondents also pointed to personal finances, relationships and work as major sources of stress.

Symbolism counts

The impetus for change can sometimes come from the most unexpected places. Such is the case with John Fetterman. Standing 6-foot-8 and frequently seen during the campaign in his hooded sweatshirt, this rough-and tumble looking guy does not provoke images of depression. Just the opposite.

And that is the point. If John Fetterman, Lane Johnson, Brian Dawkins, Malcom Jenkins, and others who come from occupational cultures like sports and politics steeped in Neanderthal perceptions of what it means to be a "man" can publicly break the mold, there is hope for all of us.

These men and many like them across the nation are emerging with compelling stories that shed the norms of the past, collectively forming a new culture based in the reality of contemporary medicine. We only can hope that the courage exhibited by Fetterman, Johnson and the not-so-public people across the U.S. will serve as a springboard to advance the movement to which they have contributed. There is clearly a need.

Our hearts go out to John Fetterman and his family. While his personal health is priority one, he is serving as a role model for all those who may experience depression or any form of mental illness. As a 50-plus man leading the charge for healthy behavior, Fetterman is a point of personal pride, and a strong sign of hope for the future. It is leadership that we should all try to emulate.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.

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