Fetterman Says ‘Disaster’ Debate With Oz Triggered ‘Seismic' Shift Into Depression

Sen. John Fetterman (Getty Images)
April 19, 2023

Democratic senator John Fetterman (Pa.) acknowledged that campaigning after a stroke—and particularly the October 2022 debate against Republican candidate Mehmet Oz—caused a "seismic" shift in his mental health that led to his hospitalization.

Being called a "vegetable" and other criticisms of his fitness to serve in the Senate "accelerated the depression," Fetterman told People magazine in his first media interview since being discharged from Walter Reed Medical Center on March 31, published on Wednesday.

"I'll never forget the date. It was Oct. 25," Fetterman said of the nationally televised debate with Oz. He recalled that his performance, during which he struggled to give coherent answers, was deemed a "disaster." 

Fetterman said he prepared extensively for the showdown: "I knew going into this debate that millions of people were going to be watching. And it wasn't even just for Pennsylvanians watching, this would be kind of national ... [it] would be living in history."

"But I was still in recovery from the stroke," he said. "It would be trying to run a marathon with a broken ankle."

It was after the debate when "the depression really started to set in," said Fetterman, who broke down in tears at one point in the interview.

Less than six weeks after being sworn in, Fetterman checked into the Walter Reed Medical Center's psychiatric unit, where he was treated for 44 days for severe depression.

"Fetterman received daily visits from his chief of staff to discuss legislation, and additional visits from colleagues and relatives. [His wife,] Gisele [Fetterman] traveled to Maryland once a week to see him," People reported in the extremely sympathetic writeup.

This week, Fetterman returned to the Senate. On Wednesday, he chaired his first Senate agriculture subcommittee meeting, during which he struggled to deliver his opening statement. 

Fetterman's account to People stands in contrast to what his campaign publicly claimed before Election Day, seemingly confirming allegations that the severity of his condition was concealed from the public. 

In June 2022, Fetterman pointed to a doctor's note that said he could "campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem." In August, Fetterman told Pennsylvania voters he was "feeling great, better than I have in years." The team released another glowing doctor’s note in October 2022, written by a doctor who was also a donor to Fetterman's campaign.

In February, however, after Fetterman took office and before he was hospitalized, the senator's team admitted to the New York Times that he thought "he may have set himself back permanently by not taking the recommended amount of rest during the campaign" after the stroke.

Fetterman assured People that he is better now, "joyous and ... feeling free of depression."

"Address your depression," Fetterman said. "I was skeptical it would make anything better, but it did. It works."