When a celebrity like Lady Gaga goes public with her mental health issues, I pay attention. A famous singer sharing her battle with depression with millions of fans gives me hope — an elusive emotion for someone like me who is bipolar. Her self disclosure helps to combat the stigma of mental illness, and her actions — such as creating “Born This Way,” a charitable foundation that has most recently taught Las Vegas’ Valley High School students about mental health issues — are inspirational.
And when a three-term U.S. Congressman and former Marine-turned Democratic presidential candidate discusses his own battles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on prime-time national television, I am doubly hopeful for the future of America’s mental health. Even if he seems a longshot to win his party’s nomination, he’s bringing a badly needed discussion to America’s living rooms. He also has a campaign proposal that would require mental-health exams as well as annual physicals for active-duty military and veterans.
I met 40-year-old U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts who was elected in 2014, at a Democratic Party ice cream social in Reno several weeks ago. He had just declared his long-shot candidacy for the 2020 presidential election, and he’s still hardly known nationally. But his credentials are impressive. He earned three degrees from Harvard and later led Marines as an infantry officer during four tours in Iraq from 2001-2008. Currently he sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
Today he voices opposition to the war and faults the Veterans Administration for its sluggish efforts to address PTSD. At the gathering in Reno, he shared how a wartime buddy also suffering from PTSD committed suicide while waiting to get VA mental health care and revealed a PTSD moment about having left behind an injured Iraqi boy in order to take care of his own troops down the road.
Though he didn’t make it into the first round of Democratic debates, Moulton is trying to trigger a national conversation about our nation’s health that, in my mind, is just as important as any debate issue.
I spoke with the congressman by phone the other day. Here are excerpts:
You’ve been a congressman since 2014, so why now have you disclosed your own mental health issues?
Moulton: I have been advocating for mental health ever since I was elected to Congress. It’s of personal importance to me because I know so many veterans who are struggling. They’ve never told their war stories. And I didn’t talk about my personal PTSD before because there was great political risk in talking about this. I just decided that I needed to lead by example and share my own stories.
Were you surprised by all the media coverage you received?
The response was incredible across the country. I never thought that opening up this conversation for veterans would be so strong. We have a long, sad history in America of disqualifying politicians who talk about mental health, but it has to change.
Did you talk about PTSD while in Iraq?
I think we learned a lot more about PTSD during the course of the Iraqi war. I made a point of talking about it with my Marines on the way to Iraq. Still, it was not widely accepted in the military even though active duty troops do talk about it somewhat more these days. Clearly we haven’t changed the conversation enough. My goal as a future president is to get to where we’re not talking about mental health care and physical health care – just health care.
What do you say to voters who might question your ability to become president with your PTSD?
The experience of going through a war, four tours of duty, and dealing with PTSD has strengthened me as a leader. I think it’s a good that unlike any other candidate in this race, that if I have to make a decision to go to war involving the lives of young Americans and have to live with the consequences of that decision, I will make it having seen combat on the front line. I also know that we have to exhaust every option before putting American lives in danger.
How has your experience as a war veteran affected your national security strategy?
I believe that we should always try to win wars without fighting them. You do that through diplomacy, intimidation, and development. Right now unfortunately we’re fighting wars without winning. What also sets me apart from other candidates is having the leadership experience of having brought troops together in the most divisive circumstances, the Iraqi war.
Kim Palchikoff can be contacted at email@example.com.