Rep. Seth Moulton: Let's Declare Independence from Stigmas Around Mental Health Care

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., speaks to media during a campaign event held at the Liberty House in Manchester, N.H., on April 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., speaks to media during a campaign event held at the Liberty House in Manchester, N.H., on April 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)

Seth Moulton, a veteran Marine Corps officer, represents the 6th Congressional District of Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives. He is currently a Democratic candidate for president.

This Independence Day, as we celebrate our nation's founding and the men and women that secured it for us, let's also declare our freedom from the stigmas surrounding seeking treatment for mental health issues.

Veterans and service members throughout our country deserve so much more than the system we've created for them. The wait times to get care for mental health issues at the VA are often far too long because there aren't enough mental health professionals on staff. By our best estimates, the VA is not reaching fully half the veterans who need help.

Between last year's fireworks and tomorrow's, an average of 20 veteran suicides have happened every day according to The New York Times. That rate is more than 1.5 times more than non-veterans and it rivals the casualty rate of some of the deadliest days for Americans in the Iraq War.

For those of us who served, this is personal in a few ways. Our friends -- some of the bravest people we know -- are struggling to get help. We hear from each other on Facebook and through text messages how hard it is to find help or find the courage to seek it. We've gone to too many funerals for people who didn't die in our generation's wars, but because of them.

And we hear from a president who hugs the flag, loves parades (ask any of the troops who have to march in a parade what they think of parades ... ), and uses our troops as a backdrop for political messages. But he has failed to stem the tide of suicide, and won't even let the VA explore new treatments.

I recently disclosed that I've dealt with post-traumatic stress from my time serving in the Marine infantry in Iraq. For the last four years I've served in Congress and have called for courage from our leaders. But, until recently I lacked the courage to speak openly about my own experience with mental health. I was worried I'd lose my job, or the people who have tasked me with representing them would lose their faith in my ability to do it.

Since talking about my own experience, I have found the opposite to be true. I've traveled the country and organized Veteran Town Halls with fellow veterans and non-veterans alike. In this short time, I've been amazed by how many Vietnam veterans have used these gatherings to share haunting memories from the war for the very first time. Many more recent vets have done the same, and we've heard from a lot of non-veterans who have shared similar tough experiences of dealing with post-traumatic stress from abuse or other life-changing events.

For many, sharing these stories -- many for the first time in their lives -- marks a decision to deal with them head-on. This sets a powerful example for others. It reminds me of what a Marine from my first platoon told me once: "Seth, after all we went through, it would be a disorder to not be affected by it!" This is why many fellow vets and I call these symptoms, which are natural human reactions to trauma, "post-traumatic stress" and not "post-traumatic stress disorder." And what everyone needs to know is that they are treatable -- so long as you ask for help.

There's more work to do. Here's where we should start:

1. Make mental health care check ups as routine as getting a physical or getting your teeth cleaned for active duty troops and veterans

2. Set the same standard for high schoolers across the country, where mental health issues are skyrocketing

3. And designate 5-1-1 as a national mental health emergency hotline.

Next week, Congress has the chance to knock out Step One. I amended the National Defense Authorization Act, the legislation that funds the military, to require mental health screenings for every service member returning home from a combat deployment, and to get the first one within 14 days of leaving the battlefield.

Step Two is harder, but our troops can set the example and I'm optimistic we can get high schoolers the help they need sooner than later. In the meantime, Step Three is simple and just as important. Right now, calling 5-1-1 in almost every part of the country helps Americans get information about traffic jams. This was a great idea before phones had GPS. Let's transition this number to a mental health emergency line, so people who urgently need help know immediately where to find it.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, somewhere between one-third to 80% of suicides are impulsive and people who attempt suicide overwhelmingly do not repeat the attempt after they get treatment. There are a number of hotlines, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Veteran Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, press 1) or text line (838255). The teams staffing these lines are providing a great service to the country. But we should make it easier to get help.

Next week, Congress is considering a $700 billion defense spending bill. We estimate that we can accomplish Step 1 completely with a $500 million expansion of mental health care resources, so I've proposed cutting some old ships and aircraft we don't need to pay for it. These are exactly the kinds of forward-looking tradeoffs we should make to take care of our troops and veterans.

This Independence Day, the president has organized an expensive parade on the National Mall. Parades are fine, unless you're forced to march in them. For those who truly want to support the troops, let's demand our leaders devote their time and your tax money to breaking the stigma around mental health care.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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