Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton didn’t make the debate stage this week but he’s been pushing bold policy proposals about mental health during his campaign for the presidency. Moulton’s advocating for a 511 national mental health hotline, pushing mental health as an essential part of basic health care, advocating for regular mental health check ups for active duty military and veterans, and yearly mental health screenings for every high schooler in America.
Moulton, a captain in the Marines, served four tours in Iraq, earned a Bronze Star at the battle of Najaf and, like so many combat veterans, came home haunted by the carnage of the war. This spring, he admitted that he’d been suffering from PTSD and had sought treatment. It’s an incredibly brave thing for a politician to do. When George McGovern’s running mate Thomas Eagleton’s clinical depression was revealed in 1972, Eagleton was promptly dropped from the ticket. It has become anathema for a candidate for national office to admit any kind of mental health problem ever since.
Despite very low poll numbers, Moulton’s campaign remains undaunted. The congressman has pushed things before — running and winning an uphill battle for Congress; successfully recruiting veterans to run for office in the Democratic landslide in the 2018 midterms; unsuccessfully challenging Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership early this year. Rolling Stone caught up with him to talk about his signature issue, the threat of war in the Persian Gulf, and why the VA isn’t embracing cannabis treatments for PTSD.
You have a proposal for a national mental health hotline — those in distress could dial 511 and speak to a professional. How has that proposal been received by your colleagues in Congress?
I can’t tell you how many colleagues have come up to me and said thank you for a lead on this. It’s so important. And it’s having an impact. There are other politicians, just in the last couple of weeks, who have started sharing some of their own stories. When we’ve held the town halls across the country, there are veterans and non-veterans alike who come to these town halls that are sharing some stories for the first time in their lives. I had a number of Vietnam veterans tell a story and say, “I’ve never shared this since the war.” It’s not just the hotline, it’s the whole concept of just being willing to tackle mental health in an honest way that we just haven’t been able to do as a country.
How would the hotline work, specifically?
Right. So there’s two things. One, a hotline like this is only successful if there’s enough people available to field the calls. The whole point is we want people to get help immediately, and people can’t these days. I have a good friend in the Marines who really has done very well since coming back. He got out about the same time I did 10 years ago, but just had a really tough period recently and said for the first time in his life he felt suicidal. So he called the VA, and they returned his call 48 hours later and offered him an appointment in 3 months — that’s obviously just totally unacceptable. We have to make sure to have enough people, but the real hope here is that we would achieve a lot of that staffing by just consolidating existing hotlines. There are a number of different suicide hotlines, a number of different mental health hotlines. Some of them are even very specific, like the Golden Gate Bridge has a phone number on it. We don’t have a bill yet in Congress that’s been scored to know exactly what the cost would be. A lot of the costs would be borne by just savings through consolidating these existing services.
How hard is it for you personally to come forward with your story?
Well, very hard. I guess the best measure of that is the fact that I’ve been in politics since 2013, and I haven’t had the courage to share it until now. I say that candidly as someone who talks a lot in politics about the importance of courage, how I think we would be so much more successful in Washington if people simply had the courage to vote the way they know is right — even though it may hurt their politics back home.
Unpack that a little…
What I mean by that is, I often get asked, “Seth, why is Congress so stupid? How could you not believe in climate change?” My observation is that most of my colleagues are pretty smart. They’re not oblivious to science, they’re just scared of the politics. What we need in politics is not more intelligence, but just more courage. But, candidly this is the place where I did not have the courage to share my story before because I’ve been afraid of political consequences. Some of those political consequences are pretty well documented, because I heard the story about [Thomas] Eagleton, the vice presidential nominee, and others who have been scared out of politics for mental health concerns. There’s also an amazing history of presidents who have had mental health issues. Lincoln, everyone knows, was severely depressed throughout much of his life. There were times when his friend had to take away his pocket knives.
And then there’s someone like President Grant.
Yes, Ulysses Grant. Eisenhower clearly had post traumatic stress.
PTSD was only identified as a condition relatively recently. But throughout our history, damaged people like Grant were self-medicating with alcohol. We just didn’t know. The science wasn’t there.
That’s right, they self-medicated. I think in some cases Lincoln actually did get help, but they gave him mercury and things like that, and that made it worse. And then there were people like George H.W. Bush who, to read some of his letters home [during WWII], they expressed the same guilt and remorse that I felt. And who knows, maybe he actually did talk to a therapist but certainly didn’t tell anybody about it.
Was it hard for you to initially seek help?
Yes, it was, because I was afraid of a stigma, or [being] the victim of a stigma. The other thing in place for me is that, to be honest, I didn’t have terrible symptoms. I never felt suicidal, I haven’t been driving down a highway in America worried that a roadside bomb would blow up. These are experiences that a lot my fellow vets, my friends, have had. That meant two things for me — one, it took time to come to terms with the fact that I was suffering post-traumatic stress as well, even though the symptoms weren’t as severe. I was having bad dreams and sometimes I’d wake up in a cold sweat and just felt very withdrawn and sometimes my life felt pretty meaningless since I got back from the war. But then the other thing was that you almost feel a little bit guilty going and getting help, knowing that mental health resources are in short supply. Why am I taking time at the VA when you have some other guys who are actually suicidal? So when I got help I did not got to the VA but through school, when I was going to grad school in Massachusetts. But that’s not the right attitude. The right thing to do is go get help.
How stressed is the VA right now, given we’re two decades into a seemingly constant war?
Very, and the story that I shared about my friend who called because he was suicidal a couple weeks ago and was basically blown off, that’s a frighteningly common example. Another thing that happens a lot is that because the VA doesn’t have the mental health resources that it needs, they just prescribe veterans drugs. I’ve heard this story from so many people, vets go in and want to talk to someone, they want to get therapy, but they don’t really have those resources, so they just prescribe them some drugs, antidepressants or whatever else.
I have a very personal story with this. One of my friends and real heroes from the war is this amazing kid from Alabama. He saved the life of another Marine in my platoon, when he carried him out of a building after he was hit by a grenade. He ran through machine gun fire to get this kid to safety. He came back from the war and wanted to continue to do life-saving work, so he went to nursing school, got a good job, but he had post-traumatic stress. He went to the VA and the VA just kept giving him drugs. He ended up having a heart attack at the age of 30 just from taking drugs prescribed to him by the VA. That kind of story I’ve heard repeated a lot.
Did he pass away?
Yeah, yeah he did. And to his credit, he at least asked for help, but he wasn’t getting the help that he needed.
How come the VA’s not embracing more alternative medicines and therapies using cannabis?
It’s just the conservative nature in Washington. I just spoke to the VA committee chairman literally about 20 minutes ago about cannabis, but they won’t even study it. Because there are so many vets who are getting cannabis on their own so that they don’t become addicted to pharmaceuticals. I have a Facebook group with my fellow marines and we talk all the time, like literally everyday people are sending messages and a lot of times they’re sharing information about cannabis, and it’s like these guys are responsible marine vets who are telling each other what kind of cannabis to buy because they can’t get any advice from their health care professionals.
Does it help them?
It makes them feel better, and a lot of them are doing it because they go to the VA, and a lot of them specifically said, “I went to the VA, they prescribed me this stuff that I heard is addictive, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to become like Joe or whoever that got addicted to this stuff.” So they take cannabis as a safe alternative, and yet they go to the VA, and they can’t even talk about it.
Even without cannabis, the VA, actually my home VA in Massachusetts, the Bedford VA, has really put a lot of emphasis into alternative pain therapies. And even though they don’t have cannabis, the last time I checked, they have an opioid prescription rate that was literally half the national VA average. The point is that there are ways to do this better, and the VA’s not doing enough.
There’s also a homelessness crisis among Vets. And if you don’t give people a home, how can you treat them?
Well, that’s right, and when veterans are homeless we have to get them off the streets. But where I try to focus my effort is not on the homelessness itself, as important as that is. It’s really preventing homelessness, and I think that you really have to start with the transition the vets make from the military back into civilian lives.
If you look at the statistics, vets are disproportionally homeless, they have high rates of suicide, and have high rates of health issues, but also average lifetime earning is much higher for a vet, and they’re much more involved in their communities, they vote at higher rates. You have to ask, “How is it that some are doing really, really well, way above average, and some are doing really poorly?” And I think a lot of it just comes back to navigating the transition from being in the military to being at home. You’ve got all of these extraordinary people with the best leadership training on Earth. You can apply that success in your civilian job or life back home. If you don’t navigate that transition well, you can literally end up on the street.
So we’re hearing the drums of war beat about Iran again. What do you think about the situation, and where do you think it’s heading?
I think it’s incredibly dangerous, and there’s no question in my mind that [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo and [National Security Adviser] John Bolton and some other hawks of the administration are trying to get us into the war. They started the war I served in with the help of another person who had no credibility to keep us out of war, because he dodged serving in the war himself. And Trump dodged it more severely than Bush. It’s a far cry from Eisenhower when he went to Korea, and said “OK, nope, we’re not doing anymore of this.”
You compared Trump to Hitler early on. I wonder if you felt that was over the top or do you think that was actually appropriate?
I compared the rise of Trump to the rise of Hitler. The point I was making is that tyrants can get elected and that was the danger in the 2016 election, and I think that that danger has borne truth.
Can you comment on the debates and how you feel about your campaign right now?
Oh, I feel great. I mean, we’re only eight weeks in, we haven’t even been down the road for two months, so we’re certainly late to the game as one of the last candidates to get in, but the response on the ground is fantastic. And, ironically, because Steve Bullock and I were excluded from the first debates, we had our biggest fundraising day of the campaign. So I couldn’t be happier with the way things are going, but obviously there’s a long road ahead. This is a marathon until February of next year.
The military is very conservative. What did you learn about talking to the other side as a liberal serving with lots of right-wingers?
Oh, a lot, because one of the strengths of my candidacy is that if we’re going to win this election, which I think is going to be much harder than the Democrats think, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the parts of the country that we need to flip back. If we’re going to win this election we have to build a broad coalition of Democrats, everybody in our party, plus independents, there’s Obama-Trump voters and then even there’s moderate Republicans. I had to do that for a job — to get people to risk their lives for what I was asking them to do. It’s a leadership lesson, it’s a leadership experience — and the only way to get people to follow you is if they trust you. So this is a job that I’ve done before, and I’m the only candidate in the race that’s done that.
So are the Republicans responding to your campaign and some of your proposals?
I had a young Republican come up to me just last night. She introduced herself at a town hall and said, “I identify as a Republican,” is the way she put it. “But I’ve got to tell you, I really like a lot of what you said.” And I told her a quick story about the minister at my college church and he made a point once that the best sermons aren’t ones you completely agree with, they’re ones that really push you and don’t expect you to agree with everything. She said, “I don’t agree with everything you said but I really respect you and I respect your leadership.” And that’s really what matters. I don’t expect every American to agree with me, I don’t even expect every Democrat to agree with me. But I want Americans to know that they can trust me. That they can trust my leadership and my judgment, and that’s ultimately what we need in the next president.