Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine veteran who is running for president, will introduce a plan Tuesday evening to expand military mental health services and will disclose publicly that he sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after his combat deployments during the Iraq War.
“I had some particular experiences or regrets from the war that I just thought about every day, and occasionally I’d have bad dreams or wake up in a cold sweat,” Moulton told POLITICO in an interview ahead of a Tuesday night event in Massachusetts that will begin a Veterans Mental Health Tour in early-primary states. “But because these experiences weren’t debilitating — I didn’t feel suicidal or completely withdrawn, and I was doing fine in school — it took me a while to appreciate that I was dealing with post-traumatic stress and I was dealing with an experience that a lot of other veterans have.”
Moulton arrived home in 2008 and eventually sought out counseling in 2009, trying out a few different therapists before finding one he connected with and met with weekly.
“I got to the point where these experiences weren’t haunting me every day,” he said. “They’ll always be there and there will always be regrets that I have, but I got to a point where I could deal with them and manage them. It’s been a few years now since I’ve woken up in a cold sweat in bed from a bad dream or felt so withdrawn from my friends or whatever that I would just go home and go to bed because I miss being overseas with the Marines.”
Moulton said that he continues to see a therapist at least once a month “just to check in the same way that I go to the doctor for a check-up even when I’m not sick, just because I think it’s healthy.”
Moulton said he hoped that opening up about his own experience would help ease the stigma that veterans and nonveterans alike feel when confronted with mental illness.
“I just want people to know they’re not alone,” he said. He said he had not taken psychiatric medication but added that such treatment “is totally acceptable if that’s part of your diagnosis.”
His policy proposal would require “mental health check-ups” in addition to annual physicals for active-duty military and veterans, plus mandate a counseling session for all troops within two weeks of their return home from a combat deployment. It would also provide money for yearly mental health screenings for every high-schooler in the country. The campaign proposal has not yet been set to legislative text.
Moulton’s disclosure also marks the first time in the modern era that a presidential candidate from a major party has publicly revealed mental health treatment. In recent years, historians have discovered that at least two presidents — John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon — privately took psychiatric medication while serving in the Oval Office, and there is strong evidence that Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression.
“Just because other presidents haven’t talked about this openly doesn’t mean that presidents haven’t dealt with these issues in the past,” Moulton said.
But fear of political fallout ensured that such maladies and treatments have been kept secret.
Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign was thrown into chaos after reporters discovered that his running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, had been hospitalized for depression and received electroconvulsive therapy. McGovern ultimately pushed Eagleton off the Democratic ticket, but the tumult surrounding his vice presidential pick contributed to an overwhelming defeat against Nixon in November.
In the decades since, campaigns have sometimes tried to undermine opponents by raising questions about their mental health. In the 2000 Republican presidential primary, then-Sen. John McCain released medical records following a whisper campaign that he was unstable as a result of his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He also tried to defuse the issue by laughing it off: “Those voices in my head,” he joked to Maureen Dowd. “STOP THOSE VOICES!”
Some politicians below the presidential level have been able to openly discuss mental health treatment and still win their elections. Former Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota told voters before winning his first term in 2010 that he had been taking antidepressants. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) has also said that he has suffered from PTSD after returning from combat in Iraq.
But the presidency comes with a different level of power, in particular with authority over the nuclear arsenal. Asked what he would tell any voter worried about his stability in the Oval Office, Moulton said, “I think dealing with this has made me stronger, and I think it’s good to have a president who has had to make the life-or-death decision before and live with the consequences.”