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The Bravery of Senator John Fetterman

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by Kellen Squire

I opened my phone up yesterday to discover the news that Senator John Fetterman had sought inpatient treatment for clinical depression.

I sat and stared at my phone for a few minutes, speechless and awash from a veritable firehose of competing emotions.

Working in the emergency services puts my colleagues and I in an unenviable crossroads- we are not only on the frontlines of fighting the mental health crisis here in our country, particularly amongst those who have suffered life-altering medical emergencies like Senator Fetterman did when he had his stroke, but also in a profession that is itself rife with PTSD, vicarious trauma, clinical depression, and suicide. We spend countless hours advocating for people to come to us when they are in need, and then refuse to take our own advice and seek help when we need it.

I’ve had three colleagues that I’ve worked with in emergency services commit suicide. Seen at least a half dozen more attempts between my job in emergency services, acute and intensive care, and public education. Wondered how many of the “Haha, at least if I’d gotten hit by that bus, I wouldn’t have had to come to work!” comments were jokes, or something more serious. Seen more people dealing with emotional trauma, burnout, and depression than I’d like to admit. But if you’re a doctor, a nurse, a firefighter, counselor, teacher, social worker, EMT, etc, you think “What right do I have to ask for help when all of these people I see, day in and day out, have it so much worse than I do, and our mental healthcare system is so broken as it is? I’ll just be taking limited attention from the being that actually need it.”

But asking for help when you need it is the real strength. I always tell my new nurses that- I emphasize it over and over again. It’s the “You put on your oxygen mask before you help anyone else” principle. None of us is strong enough to handle everything we’re expected to go through alone, so if you need help, you ask for it. And they’ve pretty much always done that- when we’re taking care of patients.

When it comes to taking care of ourselves, though… there is still so much perceptual stigma from asking for help that we’ve got a long, long way to go before things will ever get better.

Beyond that, I can tell you that what Senator Fetterman is going through is all too common with people who have suffered medical emergencies. We often focus on survival when we talk in medical terms- strokes, heart attacks, COVID-19. I remember hearing the sneers of “The survival rate is 99%!” Well, yeah… but “survival” is a pretty black and white metric.

Nobody talks about the mental strain that comes from “surviving” gunshot wounds- the dressing changes, the wound vacs, the MRSA infections, the antibiotics to fight it that makes you unremittingly nauseous, and the c. diff diarrhea you get from them. You hear almost nothing about the people who try to communicate again after having a stroke, as a part of the world you’ve always known and been able to perceive is gone forever- or, even worse, if you can hear everything you want to say in your brain, but can’t make it come out. There are few stories about the people who could jog a mile in 7:30 before their “mild” COVID-19 infection, and now can’t finish a mile without wheezing into a productive cough that makes them sound like they’re 95 years old. Sure, all those people “survived”, but the mental cost of their survival is immense… and mental health issues in those people are the rule, not the exception.

Which is what stuck with me about what Senator Fetterman was doing. I know for a fact he’s not the only Federal legislator to have ever needed inpatient treatment for a mental health crisis; not even close. But he’s doing it openly and unapologetically, while he’s in office. One of the most powerful examples I’ve ever seen of someone seeking the help they need. An example I can tell you from firsthand experience that we desperately need.

Senator Fetterman- take the time you need to feel better. You have colleagues that will hold the line until you get back. And thank you for your bravery. It’s going to save a number of other people’s lives and well-being.

Kellen Squire is an emergency department nurse from Charlottesville, Virginia, running for the Virginia House of Delegates.

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