Congressman Seth Moulton has filed a bill that would create a single, national suicide prevention hotline for mental health emergencies. WGBH's Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Moulton to learn more about the proposal. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: As a former combat Marine, you recently talked about your struggle with PTSD. You've highlighted the record high suicide rate among active duty service members, which is a major crisis in this country. This is a personal issue for you.
Rep. Seth Moulton: It is. It's very personal. I decided to disclose my own story of dealing with mental health when I came back from my four combat tours in Iraq and how it took a while to recognize that I could benefit from getting some help [and] from talking to someone. There's such a stigma against getting help for mental health issues. If you break your arm or you need an annual checkup you're not afraid to go to the doctor. And you can tell your friends about it, tell your co-workers, "Oh yeah, I needed to go to the hospital because I broke my arm.” No one's ashamed of that. And yet to seek help for a problem in another part of your body, in your head, it's embarrassing. It's shameful. That shouldn't be the case. Seeking mental health help should be as routine as getting an annual physical or getting your teeth cleaned. And knowing whom to call when you need help should be as simple as dialing 911.
Mathieu: You're talking about the last line of defense, in some cases here — an emergency source for help. When I talk to people about this the reaction was, "I thought we already had one of those."
Moulton: We don't. We have a lot of different numbers you can call. There are hotlines for veterans, hotlines for non-veterans, hotlines specific to certain bridges, where people like to jump off to commit suicide. So no one knows what the single number is. It’s as if you woke up in the middle the [night] and smelled smoke and realized your house was burning down and you had to go find a phone book to look up the number of the local fire department. That's why we have 911, so that in a moment of crisis everyone knows you just dial that number and then the call center will find the people to respond — the local fire department or the local police department. Sometimes people don't know if you're on a state highway, should you call the state police or the local police? You don't have to worry about that because you dial 911, and they figure it out. This bill will make it the same for having a mental health crisis. You can call this number. Maybe you're a veteran who should talk to a veteran center, the call center will make that connection. Maybe you're someone who is not contemplating suicide but just really needs to talk to a therapist. They'll make that connection, too.
Mathieu: Will this pass? I assume this is not controversial.
Moulton: Well, it seems like everything in Congress is controversial these days, but we already have over 55 co-sponsors, and Congress is in recess. I co-authored this bill with a Republican from Utah who's an Air Force veteran himself. So this issue is personal to him, too, because he's talked about how many friends he has who are dealing with mental health issues. And of course we know that the veteran suicide rate is astronomically high. There are about 20 veterans a day who die of suicide. So it's personal for us. But as I've shared my story and it's inspired others to share theirs, I've heard from people all over this country who are affected by mental health — either themselves, a family member or a friend. One in five Americans deals with mental health issues, and that means it touches every single one of us.
Mathieu: You've become known as a bit of an insurgent in your party after beating a long-standing incumbent for your job [and] challenging leadership in the House. I wonder if you'd like to see Congressman Joe Kennedy run for Senate, or if you've talked to him about it?
Moulton: I talked to him very briefly about it, and he told me he hasn't made a decision yet. But look, I think primaries are healthy for our democracy. That's why we have them. I wouldn't be here without a without a primary.
Mathieu: You're kind of the model for this.
Moulton: When I did it in 2014, I was the only Democrat in the country to defeat an incumbent in a House primary.
Mathieu: And you got a lot of pushback from the national party.
Moulton: Well, not only from the national party, but from right here at home. I mean, there were a lot of people in the Massachusetts Democratic establishment who told me, 'Seth, not only are you going to lose this race,' they said, 'you'll never be involved in Massachusetts politics again, because you dare to take on an incumbent.'
Mathieu: Is he getting calls like that now, you think?
Moulton: Well, I imagine he is. I don't know. I mean, what they were saying to me as a young combat veteran, someone who hadn't been involved with politics before, was, 'Seth, do not participate in the democracy you just risked your life to defend.' And of course that's wrong. We know it's wrong. The point [of primaries] is the same as any election, to air different ideas and different perspectives. Often the incumbent does win, because he or she is able to make the case that they've been doing a good job. And that's fine, too. But I don't think we should be afraid of primaries.
Mathieu: Would you support Joe Kennedy if he ran?
Moulton: Well, I haven't made that decision yet. I don't even know if he's going to run. But he's a friend, but I also have a very good relationship with Sen. Markey.
Mathieu: I can't imagine dinner at the Thanksgiving table with the congressional delegation and the life that you guys lead here. It's something else.
Moulton: Well, the point is we've got to get out of the stratosphere and get down to getting good work done for our constituents. That's why I'm so focused on this bill right now, because I know it will make a difference in people's lives. If we can get it passed within a year, this number will be implemented and everyone should know that 9-8-8 is the place to call.