Retreat offers Sestak insight


BRATTLEBORO — Presidential candidate Joe Sestak made a stop at the Brattleboro Retreat, a mental health and addiction treatment hospital, to solicit some insight on issues.

"I honestly believe that mental health, not only in numbers, is a big issue for America as far as diseases but it also is the one that most harms the overall collective good of America, the productivity and things," said Sestak, a former three-star Navy admiral and Democrat who served in the United States House of Representatives for Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2011.

Kurt White, senior director of ambulatory services at the Retreat, said he believes the country will be moving in a good direction as long as the issue is discussed as directly and personally as possible at all levels of society.

"The stigma of mental illness is giant and probably remains the single greatest obstacle to good outcomes and good policy at both the state and federal level," he said.

During a short visit Sunday, hospital officials told Sestak about former sheriff Keith Clark who went public with his story in 2017. He had been dealing with depression, insomnia and suicidal ideation before seeking help at the Retreat.

Konstantin von Krusenstiern, vice president of development and communications at the Retreat, suggested that having an admiral talk about eliminating stigma and encourage those who need assistance to step forward would be "very powerful."

"We're going to tweet this out after this talk," Sestak said, holding a brochure that says "Stand Up to Stigma," a Retreat campaign to reduce stigma and create positive change.

The candidate toured a floor at the hospital dedicated to its Uniform Service Program, where patches from different emergency service agencies representing individuals treated for mental health issues make up what is called the Wall of Courage.

"This is amazing," he said of the number of those affected.

Von Krusenstiern, vice president of development and communications at the Retreat, said the hospital has been ranked the 12th largest provider of mental health services in the U.S. He told Sestak that funding would need to be figured out for a Medicare-for-all system as private providers pay more for services now but it should work because it would include the same pool of people.

"Do I think it's a worthy goal?" Sestak said. "Darn right, I do."

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In Congress, Sestak voted for offering a public option for health care when the Affordable Care Act was being crafted. He considers the issue to be "deeply personal."

"My daughter was first diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 4, but the quality care that the American people provided my family through the military gave her a chance to beat the disease," he wrote on his website. "When Alex's cancer came back ... more than a decade later, we were fortunate to have the same medical heroes who had saved her once, save her again — including a doctor who came out of retirement to perform the intricate brain surgery. I'm running for President so that one day soon all Americans will be able to feel the same sense of gratitude and good fortune my family feels when we think of my daughter's care and treatment. We must finally make healthcare a right, not a privilege."

At the Retreat, Sestak made several references to his daughter's brain cancer as he asked hospital officials in different ways what he should know as he makes his case to the American public.

White told him "persistently homeless" individuals can have significant mental health or substance use problems. He said the opioid crisis has created an "almost lost generation," which has an effect on economic growth.

"This epidemic has turned out to be so much more severe than we could have imagined a decade ago, you know, it's affected so many more individuals and it's gone on for so much longer than the usual ebbs and flows in the substance use patterns in the world," White said. "The underlying reasons for that, I think, are complicated. I think we got into this, in part, because of a sort of wishful thinking about painful treatment. We were going to have a sort of silver bullet approach to complicated pain management. That's a nice idea but not very realistic."

White said opioid dependence is more difficult to treat because it "hijacks the brain in a very direct way, in this old part of the brain that has to do with how we motivate ourselves to do things."

"Basically the brain ends up thinking, I need to do this more than I need to do any other thing in the world; it's more important to me than anything else," he said, adding that opioid dependence can even overpower maternal instincts. "We can treat it. It just requires a whole community approach especially to address those who are most vulnerable."

White said racism, sexism, discrimination and stigma around mental illness become additional obstacles to treatment.

After leaving the Retreat, Sestak started an eight-day walking tour of New Hampshire. He is expected to walk 105 miles and end up in Portsmouth, N.H. He began by crossing the U.S. Navy Seabees Bridge in Chesterfield and headed to Keene.

"In 2015, I walked 422 miles across the entire breadth of my home state of Pennsylvania: to meet and understand people, and to show that I stood for them," he wrote in a mass email from his campaign.

That is the same reason he cited for walking across New Hampshire. The state always hold the first primary election in the nation.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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