4 lawmakers share their mental health struggles: It's 'a form of public service'

In an emotional sit-down, they talk stigma and solutions.

April 11, 2023, 9:00 AM

In the wake of Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman entering treatment for severe depression, four Democratic colleagues in Congress exclusively sat down with ABC News to share their support for him and his recovery while applauding his courage on the stigma-clouded topic, which has historically been associated with great political risk.

The four lawmakers -- Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York -- also spoke candidly about their own mental health battles, ranging from clinical depression to post-traumatic stress disorder, in the occasionally emotional interview.

Speaking out, as Torres told ABC's Brittany Shepherd, is the best way forward.

"Telling our stories is a form of public service. We represent people who are deeply affected by mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, who want to see themselves and their elected officials," he said. "And I felt like I had a profound obligation to confront the culture of silence and stigma and shame that often surrounds the subject of mental health."

"Whether you are Republican or Democrat, progressive or conservative, Black or white, rich or poor, mental health is a universal experience that binds us together," Torres said, "because it's a human condition."

Below are highlights from the conversation. See more from the interview on ABC News Live Prime.

4 personal journeys

In part prompted by Fetterman sharing details of his struggles -- a lifelong history of depression that worsened dramatically early this year, his staff has said -- the four lawmakers told ABC News about their mental health journeys.

Smith said she first experienced symptoms of depression during college, when she was in her late teens. She had another bout of depression as a young mom, when she was in her thirties.

But she said she got care and treatment during her college years and in her thirties worked with a therapist who diagnosed her with clinical depression and helped her heal "over time."

Rep. Seth Moulton talks about mental health during a discussion with ABC News and other lawmakers, March 23, 2023.
ABC News

Moulton, a Marine veteran, first disclosed that he had sought treatment for PTSD in the aftermath of his four combat deployments in Iraq, while he also ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

It took him a "while" to come to terms with the fact that he was suffering with the disorder, because he "didn't have the worst symptoms," he said.

"I would wake up in cold sweats and have terrible dreams, but I was able to go to graduate school, I was able to hold down a job. A lot of vets can't even do those simple things," he said, noting that when he did finally access treatment by way of regular therapy appointments, his condition improved.

"I still see a therapist on a regular basis because I think it's a healthy thing to do. But I've really been able to pretty much eliminate the regular symptoms of post-traumatic stress that I have," Moulton said.

Gallego, too, suffers from PTSD, he said -- from his time while deployed in Iraq as a Marine. The Arizona congressman, who is challenging independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in 2024, said that he experiences guilt over surviving combat when some others did not.

"I sometimes feel a lot of regret. I feel sometimes that, you know, that I should have gone instead of some of my guys that went. And sometimes I feel maybe a little hypersensitive about my surroundings," he said.

Rep. Richie Torres talks about mental health during a discussion with ABC News and other lawmakers, March 23, 2023.
ABC News

Torres said he first began experiencing symptoms of depression as a high school student. He later dropped out of New York University in 2007 as he again struggled with his mental health.

Admitted into New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Hospital, Torres was then formally diagnosed with major depressive disorder, he said.

"There were moments when I even attempted suicide," Torres said. "Ever since then, I've been managing the condition, and I never thought I would make it to the United States Congress."

Mental health's history of political damage: Has it changed?

In July 1972, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. George McGovern's running mate, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, told journalists he had previously undergone electric shock treatments and psychiatric care for exhaustion and depression.

Though McGovern pledged to support Eagleton, he was forced off the ticket just over two weeks later.

It was one of the first times in modern history that a major political figure experienced fallout from revealing their mental health battles. Smith told ABC News that when she shared her history of depression while on the Senate floor in 2019, Eagleton was "in her mind."

In the 51 years since Eagleton's experience, each of the four members acknowledged, strides have been made around mental health and politics -- even as recent as earlier in their own careers as elected officials.

"I felt when I first ran for office that this was my big skeleton in the closet," said Moulton. He thought an announcement of his PTSD might "end his career."

"Ironically, getting help for it, seeing a therapist, can make the political attacks even worse," he said.

Sen. Tina Smith talks about mental health during a discussion with ABC News and other lawmakers, March 23, 2023.
ABC News
Rep. Ruben Gallego talks about mental health during a discussion with ABC News and other lawmakers, March 23, 2023.
ABC News

Torres, who is gay, said that during his first run for office, in 2013, when he was vying for a city council spot, he was more open with his sexuality than the fact that he dealt with mental health issues.

He said that an opponent in that race "attempted to weaponize my mental health against me. And so after that race, I said, 'I'm going to tell my story on my own terms.'"

With time, though, and with more and more people speaking out, the stigma has lessened.

"When I started going to therapists I [would] try to find as many ways as possible to hide that I was going to a therapist. Like I would make sure that I was driving in a way that people couldn't figure out that I was pulling up to the therapist's office," Gallego said.

"And it's been … a sea change that I don't have to do that anymore," he said.

The members said they've mostly been met with support from their peers as well, just as Fetterman was.

"Instead of being castigated, I remember how many people in the next few days and weeks came up to me and just opened up about their own stories," Moulton said, remembering what happened after he publicly shared his story of PTSD in 2019. "I mean, people from all over America I'd never met before, but even close colleagues, friends, people in my office."

Other lawmakers may be privately struggling still, Torres said: "There are 535 members in Congress. I suspect we're not the only four."

"I think the fact that the four of us are here is a sign of progress. But the fact that only four of us are here is a sign that we have a distance to travel," he said.

From left, Rep. Ruben Gallego, Sen. Tina Smith, Rep. Seth Moulton and Rep. Richie Torres, talk about mental health, during a discussion with ABC News, March 23, 2023.
ABC News

What's been done -- and still to do

President Joe Biden included a number of mental health provisions in his most recent budget proposal, which is unlikely to gain traction in the currently divided Congress.

Legislators did, however, increase funding for mental health resources as part of the 2023 omnibus spending package passed in January.

That law bolstered money for virtual peer support and expanded mental health services in schools, substance use health support and maternal mental health care, among other things.

Smith singled out last year's anti-gun violence package that was brokered with Republicans, which had some notable mental health measures as well, "supporting community behavioral health centers all over the country, supporting access to school-based care for mental health."

"That I'm really, really proud of. And we did that," Smith said.

Last year's law also included funds to transition to the new 988 crisis line, which was implemented in July and aims to provide suicide prevention and mental health support nationwide.

Moulton co-authored the bill to establish 988, which he called "probably the single most impactful thing [he's] done in Congress."

"I hear from people across the country who say, 'That saved my life.' And you know what? The risk was worth it, too, right?" he said. "Because telling my story, telling our stories, I mean, if that had cost any of our political careers and yet we saved just one life by doing that -- it's worth it."

ABC News' Kelly Livingston contributed to this report.