The Groundbreaking Moment in the 2020 Race That No One Noticed | Opinion

Democratic presidential candidates Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Seth Moulton may have marked a turning point in U.S. presidential campaigns—and no one seems to have noticed.

Last month, both Moulton and Buttigieg disclosed that they had suffered from mental health issues, in each case as a result of military service. Then, just as quickly as it was said, the point evaporated into the ether.

Buttigieg made no mention of it in the debate on June 27 (Moulton did not make the cut for this stage) or in the mental health program he announced on Wednesday and his and Moulton's statements received minimal traction in the media. But the frank acknowledgement from presidential candidates of struggles with mental health—and the fact that both campaigns survived such a revelation—is a first in modern U.S. politics.

"It's a major breakthrough," Barbara Perry, presidential studies director at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, told me over the phone this week. "Up until now, no candidate had been willing to talk about mental illness."

Moulton, who served in Iraq, opened up about his PTSD in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper in June. "After I got back from the war, there were times when I woke up with cold sweats, when I had flashbacks, bad dreams," he said. "I decided to go talk to someone—to see a therapist."

In an interview with Axios, Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, acknowledged " a level of depression ... that I went through when I came back."

One can't help but admire the candor, particularly since presidential candidates have typically shied away from discussing mental illness out of fear the public would regard it as a sign of weakness. And they have followed up on their statements with policy proposals that address mental health. Just this week, Buttigieg proposed creating a Community Health Corps, a new national service program dedicated to improving mental health and battling addiction and substance abuse in communities. When Moulton disclosed his struggles with PTSD in June, he unveiled a plan that would increase the frequency of mental health evaluations for veterans, establish mental health screenings for high schoolers, and create a new mental health crisis hotline.

But it is their personal challenges with mental health that has broken new ground in the history of presidential campaigning. For most of American history, mental health questions have been disqualifying.

The most famous example of mental illness derailing a presidential campaign involved a vice presidential candidate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri.

In 1972, Eagleton had been picked to be Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern's running mate. But just 18 days after the convention, when reports emerged that Eagleton had, in the past, received electric shock therapy for depression, Eagleton was forced to step down. A New York Times reporter wrote, of Eagleton, "It is...doubtful whether new attitudes have taken sufficient hold so that the public would be willing to accept the idea that a man cured of mental illness would be ... stable enough, to use the phrase often heard from voters, 'to have his finger on the button.'"

Other candidates have taken a hit for even alluding to mental health issues, let alone sharing their personal experiences with voters. Running for the Republican nomination in 1968, Michigan Governor George Romney—Mitt's father—said that during a visit to Vietnam in 1965 he felt that he had fallen victim to the persuasion of American officials that the war was justifiable. The word he used was "brainwashed."

That didn't go over too well.

"If you're running for the presidency, you are supposed to have too much on the ball to be brainwashed, " said Republican Congressman Robert Stafford of Vermont. TIME called Romney "The Brainwashed Candidate." Romney's polling numbers plummeted after the interview and he never recovered.

Candidates have used mental health as a point of attack. In the 1964 election, President Lyndon Johnson portrayed Republican presidential opponent Barry Goldwater as crazy and radical. A popular Democratic rephrasing of Goldwater's campaign slogan, "In your heart you know he's right," was "In your gut you know he's nuts."

More than a thousand psychiatrists signed a petition calling the Republican presidential nominee "psychologically unfit to be President."

One psychiatrist wrote, "I believe Goldwater to be suffering from a chronic psychosis."

Goldwater sued for defamation and won. The incident led the American Psychiatric Association to institute the "Goldwater Rule" which declared it unethical for any psychiatrist to comment on a person's mental health without a face-to-face examination and consent from the patient.

In the heat of the 2000 Republican presidential primary, several members of the GOP, including supporters of then-candidate George W. Bush, tried to position Sen. John McCain as "cuckoo" and "brainwashed" like the soldier in the 1962 movie ''The Manchurian Candidate.'' There were whispers that McCain had been psychologically damaged as a result of his time as a prisoner in a Hanoi prison during the Vietnam War.

"Did the good senator, who spent five and a half years being tortured in a Hanoi prison camp, come home with snakes in his head?" wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

McCain took the smears from fellow Republicans in stride. Still, back in 1999, he did not come across as open and forthcoming about his mental health. ''I've never undergone counseling of any kind, although I have no doubt I should have done so," McCain said, tossing the idea aside with a quip. "My children allege I need it."

Today, we often talk about a presidential candidate's "mental fitness." In 2016, some, including Hillary Clinton, questioned whether President Trump was mentally fit for office. In 2015, Vanity Fair mused whether Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder.

Trump's mental fitness has been questioned while in office, too. In 2017, California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren put forward a congressional resolution prodding the president to undergo a medical and psychiatric evaluation. Former FBI Director James Comey reportedly called Trump "crazy" and "outside the realm of normal."

The fact that Buttigieg and Moulton dared to put their own struggles on the record despite such recent high-profile swipes seems to suggest that Americans are becoming more accepting of mental health issues. A poll conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2018 found that 87 percent of Americans say that a mental health disorder is "nothing to be ashamed of."

Perry, the historian, told me she remains skeptical. She questions whether Buttigieg and Moulton calculated that their mental health issues would be seen differently than others', since theirs were the result of experiences in combat. And one has to wonder if the issue will get more scrutiny if either of these men should begin to develop a more commanding following.

One irony from all of this is that we may have already had presidents with undiagnosed mental health issues. A Duke University Medical Center study cited by Psychology Today states that half of all presidents suffered from some kind of mental illness, including Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Examining biographical sources, the researchers claim to have found that 24 percent of our chief executives suffered from depression and eight percent had signs of bipolar disorder. While such long distance analysis really runs afoul of the "Goldwater Rule," it does force us to recall that mental illness has been a part of life from the beginning of time. What Buttigieg and Moulton have done is to admit to it.

Jack Brewster is a recent graduate of Oberlin College. He has written for TIME, Newsweek, the New York Daily News and VICE News. He is currently developing a news startup app.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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