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Rep. Adam Smith on Mental Health, Seeking Help, and Finding the Right Treatment for You

Rep. Adam Smith on Mental Health, Seeking Help, and Finding the Right Treatment for You

Adam Smith

YouTube/U.S. House Armed Services Committee

Marking World Mental Health Day, Smith talks about his battle with depression and urges anyone suffering to get treatment as soon as they can.

As a survivor of severe depression and suicide attempts, World Mental Health Day is arguably one of the most important days of the year. Therefore, when I read about someone in the news who has battled depression, I make sure to read as much as I can about their fight.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are, how famous you are, how talented you are, or how powerful you are. I was arguably at the top of my career when I was forced to go on disability for severe depression and anxiety. What’s more, there’s still a stigma attached to this affliction.

A few years back, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with a feminist icon, former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, who was the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee. She died earlier this year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her recently when I had the opportunity to speak with the former chairman and now Democratic ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, who has written a book about his own battle with mental illness.

In 1987, Schroeder flirted with the idea of running for the Democratic nomination for president in the 1988 election. After some careful thought, she announced that she wouldn’t run, and during that press conference, she cried.

Schroeder was lampooned viciously for crying. She was deemed weak, and chauvinists barked that she was a "typical woman," crying under pressure and she was the reason women shouldn’t be president. Even Saturday Night Live did a parody of Schroeder.

She was anything but weak, and getting the opportunity to know her, I saw the strength of her character firsthand. The same can be said for Smith. After I spoke at length to him about his book that details his battle with depression, I came away with a vast appreciation for his fortitude.

When you think of the Armed Services Committee, you can’t help but picture strength. After all, it is one of the most powerful committees in Congress, with a supervisory and budgetary role over the U.S. Defense Department.

Smith led that committee while the Democrats controlled the House and is now the top Democrat on the committee.

Before I began asking questions, Smith and I talked about our personal struggles with mental illness and compared notes, which is what often happens when two people who have been through it get introduced. Anyone who has been down that deep, dark, hopeless hole knows that when you meet someone who has also fought that war there is an immediate connection.

We spoke about that black hole; and about the effort it takes to climb out of it. We traded notes about how experiences in our childhoods played a role later in life. We compared notes on medications that we were given, and how one, Klonopin, made us feel like zombies. I spoke of my suicide attempts, and he explained how hip and knee injuries took a toll on his mental well-being.

I began by asking Smith if writing the book was helpful in a cathartic way. “Yes, it was,” he said during a recent phone conversation. “I was coming out of a not-so-great place around 2019, after six difficult years,” Smith said. “I thought it would be helpful to write down all that I’ve been through after I got a clean bill of health, and not just for me in a way of being cathartic, but for others who might also be dealing with mental health struggles, so I began to organize my thoughts.”

As survivors, Smith and I talked about how important it was for those who have survived, and for those who are going through their own issues, to hear the stories of others.

“With my story, it was about how my physical and mental health were aggravating each other. Having gone through all my physical injuries, and then the mental health aspect, and the medications and treatment, I kind of took stock of all my thoughts regarding all that had happened. What did I learn? How did I get in trouble? How did I get out of it? And, regarding all the aspects that required me to get better and take care of my mind and body.”

Part of sharing stories usually involves comparing notes about when it all became too much. For me, it was after a reception that UN Climate Envoy Mike Bloomberg, who was a PR client for me, had with ambassadors who support climate change initiatives. Suddenly, I felt the ground slipping below my feet, I ran out, hailed a cab, and collapsed and cried in the back seat. Did Smith have a similar episode?

“I didn’t have one moment but three,” he recalled. “I had a bout of severe depression when I was 25, and at the time, I didn’t know what was happening. Then after about four months, it went away. Then around 2005, I suffered from severe anxiety, and I can’t recall why or what the specific cause was. It wasn’t like I found out I had cancer or lost my job. It was just this existential fear that I couldn’t describe. Then in the mid-2010s, I woke up in the middle of the night with anxiety and fought it for a year. Then finally, I was having chronic pain, especially in my hips and had them replaced. This all happened over a period of a few years, and I went on different drugs, including Klonopin, and nothing worked. “

We spoke about medications, and the fact that to a degree, when the illness occurs, you don’t consider yourself, “mentally ill,” or as we wrongly thought, “crazy,” and that was due to the fact that we never had to think about mental health, never thought it would be an issue because we were both successful, and therefore we didn’t know anything about it.

“My self-worth was so low,” Smith recounted. “I was a good husband, father, successful in my career, a good person, and yet here I was in trouble, and was constantly being tested, and just kept having doubts about my job, about my marriage, about me.”

“You need to have a strong sense of self-worth if you want to be mentally healthy, and get better, and a lot of people might confuse that with some type of narcissism, but that’s not what it is at all. With the help of mental health professionals, I was able to understand that I didn’t do anything wrong, and I had to deal with these episodes of anger and regret that were popping-up by treating them as no big deal. And that’s difficult.”

Smith talked about how your brain can trick you. “Psychotherapy helps, and it takes time to understand that you can change and deal with things without chasing every emotion down a rabbit hole, and not overreact at everything.”

He compared it to wanting to get fit. “You don’t just enter a marathon and run it the next day. You go for a walk at the beginning, and gradually, you walk a little more, then you might start jogging, and if you continue trying to improve and work at it, you eventually start to run. That’s what happened to me, and it’s been psychotherapy in addition to meditation, and it slowly helps you to better understand how your mind works.”

In addition, Smith pointed to some cutting-edge treatments that can help people suffering from mental illness relieve their stress and create a better environment for their frame of mind.

“There’s psychedelics and hypnosis are two ways that are being looked at more carefully," Smith said. "It’s not always taking a series of pills. There are other treatments available, and other ways being looked at scientifically that may help advance alternative treatments.”

As we were wrapping up, Smith talked about the stigma that still exists with mental health, and despite the fact that so many people are coming forward, like his congressional colleague, Democratic U.S. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.

“We’ve come a long way, but you and I both know that the stigma hasn’t gone away. There are so many who felt like we did, that if we talked about it, and we admitted we were having a problem, we might risk hurting our relationships, losing our jobs, or having people look at us in a different way, so there’s work to be done to diminish that stigma.”

For Smith, the biggest point he emphasizes in his book and the one takeaway he wants people to get is that you can get better. “Yes, having a good medical professional and treatments are key, but there’s one other thing that’s crucial, and that’s letting people who are around you, and love you, know the way you are feeling. It’s so important to share, because people will jump at the chance to help you, and we all need to understand that.”

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available to help. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 is for people of all ages and identities. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at or text START to 678678.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.