Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one are facing mental health issues or substance abuse disorders, call The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or visit SAMHSA’s website for treatment referral and information services.
In the spring of 2019, Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota was busy putting the finishing touches on a bill that sought to expand mental health care access for kids in schools.
But she couldn’t shake the feeling she was being less than honest about just how personal the issue of mental health was for her.
Smith was on the precipice of an election. She had no obligation to open up about her own depression that she says happened twice – once in college and once as a young mom. But in May 2019, on the floor of the US Senate, Smith, delivered a speech about mental health and admitted, “The other reason I want to focus on mental health care while I’m here is that I’m one of them.”
“I remember being nervous,” Smith recalled of delivering the speech. “I was concerned that people would think that I was trying to like make it be about myself, but once I got beyond that, and I realized that there was power in me telling the story – me particularly being a United States senator, somebody who supposedly has everything all together all the time, then it started to feel really interesting, and I could see right away the value of it.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in five adults in the US – nearly 53 million Americans – experience mental illness every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 50% of Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetime. But for politicians – often far away from home, under high levels of stress and pressure, all risk factors for mental illnesses like depression and anxiety – talking about their own mental health is still a relatively rare admission.
It’s why in February when Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman announced he was seeking inpatient treatment for clinical depression, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle celebrated not only his decision, but his transparency.
“It’s tough in politics, there’s a lot of scrutiny, you’re clearly in the public eye a lot. There are consequences to the things you say and talk about, but I think in a circumstance like this, it helps the conversation,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune said. “It helps people realize and understand the impact that this disease has on people across the country.”
A senator shares her story
Years after coming forward with her own experience, Smith said she doesn’t have any regrets. In light of the Fetterman news, she feels even more the importance to share.
“I think that every time a somebody like John or me is open about their own experiences with mental illness or you know, mental health challenges, it just breaks down that wall a little bit more about people saying, ‘Oh, it’s possible to be open and honest and not have the whole world come crashing down on you,’” Smith said.
It’s been decades since Smith experienced depression, but she said she still remembers so much about that time.
“I thought I was just off,” Smith said. “Something is wrong with me. I’m not with it. I’m not doing well enough and then you start to sort of blame yourself, and I was sort of in that cycle,” Smith said.
It was her roommate in college who first suggested she talk to someone. Reluctantly, Smith took herself over to student health services and started talking to a counselor. She said she started to feel better and eventually noticed her depression abated.