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John Fetterman’s announcement that he has checked himself into a hospital was met with bipartisan praise. Far right politicians from Texas senator Ted Cruz to fellow Pennsylvania centrist representative, Susan Wild, to New York left wing congressmen Richie Torres lavished support on the senator for publicly disclosing and confronting his illness.
Reaction to Fetterman’s predicament demonstrates the dramatic transformation of perception and attitudes toward public health and mental illness. For decades, it was seen as a stigma to be afflicted with such an ailment. Politicians were particularly vulnerable.
John Eagleton, a Missouri Democrat and a vice-presidential nominee in 1972, was hospitalized three times for depression and underwent electroshock therapy. The revelation of that news eventually doomed Eagleton’s political prospects, as presidential nominee George McGovern and other Democrats bigwigs encouraged him to withdraw from the ticket
Societal enlightenment and the progression of public attitudes notwithstanding, we still reside in a society where men have largely been conditioned to refrain from being too emotive in their feelings. Historically speaking, it has been seen as inappropriate for men to demonstrate any sort of personal vulnerability. Men who exposed their vulnerabilities were seen as less masculine or effeminate.
As a result, men have been taught to be strong, self-reliant and as independent as possible. Consequently, many men, (due to societal and personal decisions) rather than address the issue with others, have far too often opted to suffer in silence, to their own personal detriment.
I have a very close friend who suffers from an acute level of depression, bordering on manic depression. He has discussed with me how he has encountered some desolately dark chapters, where various sorts of demons’ fester and torture his inner soul. Yet, with the support of a strong and loving wife and daughter and friends (including me), he has been able to weather such sporadically tumultuous and suffocating storms, witness the eventual light at the end of the tunnel and persevere. Unfortunately, despite such admirable resiliency, there are moments where he is fearful he will collapse and plunge into a condition that will result in a fatal outcome.
Like many people, I have endured chapters of depression. This was particularly the case after my parent’s deaths in 1987 and 1995. Through the support of siblings, friends and other vital resources, I was successful in conquering such smothering clouds of darkness.
Depression is not a vice solely confined to middle aged and older men. It can affect young men who, even in our supposedly postmodern age, are still expected to retain as many of their masculine qualities as possible. While it has become more permissible for men to be sensitive, caring, cultured, and intellectually aware, there remain superficial expectations they still be brawny, robust and as true to their male roots as possible.
Given such a culmination of complex and contradictory factors, it should not be surprising that men as a whole are facing ever increasing amounts of stress, anxiety and depression in their lives. It is imperative that the greater society make an effort to confront, combat and dispel the often-unrealistic expectations that are frequently placed upon them. The reaction to Fetterman’s announcement is a great step in rejecting those expectations.
There is nothing unmasculine in seeking assistance or admitting vulnerabilities. After all, no man is an island. Real men are human.
Copyright 2023 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate
Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.