Jason Kander’s PTSD, and what it says about America

In a remarkable act of self-awareness, courage and public accountability, rising Democratic star Jason Kander, 37, has published a letter revealing his personal struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. In his letter, he describes his previously undisclosed 11-year history of depression, stress and anxiety resulting, at least partially, from a tour of duty in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army intelligence officer.

As he privately fought his mental-health demons, Kander had a very public life: He served Missouri as Secretary of State, and then ran—unsuccessfully—for U.S. Senate against Missouri’s entrenched incumbent, Roy Blunt. After losing that bruising election, Kander picked himself up, dusted himself off and founded Let America Vote. Earlier this year, he threw himself back into the electoral ring with a bid to become Mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

Now that he has revealed his struggle with PTSD, and has acknowledged that he has delayed seeking psychological help until now, the bullet points in his resume take on new meaning—particularly his Army service: He volunteered—probably out of patriotic motivation [possibly as a result of the jingoistic propaganda pushed in this country ever since 9/11, and maybe even being suckered into the notion that that, in military-worshipping America, serving in the Army would be good for a political career.] Then, in his campaign for U.S. Senate, he famously ran an ad that built on his military training: In the ad, he demonstrates his ability to assemble an Army assault rifle while blindfolded. The ad went viral, and helped propel Kander to a near-miss against Blunt. Just as a reminder, here’s the ad. [Now that he has revealed his PTSD, you have to wonder what he was feeling as he filmed this.]

After he lost to Blunt, Kander began presenting himself as a political pundit—and a witty one, at that. He began appearing as a commentator on CNN, MSNBC and other national outlets, as well as creating a Twitter feed laced with pithy, quotable comments. In light of his recent open letter, you have to wonder how difficult it was for him to maintain the public persona of an upbeat, on-the-rise politico. Judging from comments on his letter, from people who know him personally, I am sure that Kander’s effort to establish Let America Vote was sincere in its purpose [he had been, after all, Missouri’s Secretary of State—responsible for overseeing elections and voting—before running for Senate, so he has the credentials.] But now we know that everything he did was shaded by his internal struggle to keep it all together. It makes you feel really bad for him.

His decision to run for Mayor of Kansas City was seen by many as an effort to stay in the game while making an honest effort in public service, and possibly position himself for another run for higher office. But looking at this resume point now—along with his run for Senate—you have to wonder how much damage campaigning has inflicted on Kander, or has compounded his problems. In his run for Senate, Kander had to raise tens of millions of dollars. I am sure that he sincerely believed that he could do a good job as Senator and that he wanted to bring his more progressive ideas to office as a way of serving Missouri constituents. But to get there, he was under daily pressure to suck up to potential donors, appear upbeat, cowtow to the national Democratic fundraising and political apparatus, and cold-call thousands of people to beg for money. Even the most glued-together human being would be strained by the absurd demands of campaigning in 21st Century America. Imagine how it must have felt for Kander.

I don’t know Kander personally, but I am rooting for him. His openness about his personal struggle is a rarity among politicians. It’s risky to be open like that. Another Missouri politician—Senator Thomas Eagleton—got dumped as George McGovern’s vice-presidential running mate in 1972 when it was revealed that he had been treated for depression. I admire Kander’s courage, and I wish him the best in his journey back to wellness.

I fear that he will be mocked, that his political career will be irreparably damaged, and that a worthy, well-intentioned man will never get the chance to do the good that he is clearly capable of.

I hope, though, that Kander’s story will help us understand the perils of worshipping the military, glorifying “heroism” on the battlefield, recruiting young men and women by touting patriotism and jingoism, and by promising adventure and glory. We need to stop valuing military service over all other forms of service—such as teaching, nursing, and even parenting.

Kander’s story is a perfect example of how our political system and our fascination with power, weaponry and war have come together to create an environment where PTSD and other mental-health disorders are becoming features of our culture, rather than bugs.

Here is the full text of Kander’s remarkable letter:

About four months ago, I contacted the VA to get help. It had been about 11 years since I left Afghanistan as an Army Intelligence Officer, and my tour over there still impacted me every day. So many men and women who served our country did so much more than me and were in so much more danger than I was on my four-month tour. I can’t have PTSD, I told myself, because I didn’t earn it.

But, on some level, I knew something was deeply wrong, and that it hadn’t felt that way before my deployment. After 11 years of this, I finally took a step toward dealing with it, but I didn’t step far enough.

I went online and filled out the VA forms, but I left boxes unchecked — too scared to acknowledge my true symptoms. I knew I needed help and yet I still stopped short. I was afraid of the stigma. I was thinking about what it could mean for my political future if someone found out.

That was stupid, and things have gotten even worse since.

By all objective measures, things have been going well for me the past few months. My first book became a New York Times Bestseller in August. Let America Vote has been incredibly effective, knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors and making hundreds of thousands of phone calls. I know that our work is making a big difference. And last Tuesday, I found out that we were going to raise more money than any Kansas City mayoral campaign ever has in a single quarter. But instead of celebrating that accomplishment, I found myself on the phone with the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line, tearfully conceding that, yes, I have had suicidal thoughts. And it wasn’t the first time.

I’m done hiding this from myself and from the world. When I wrote in my book that I was lucky to not have PTSD, I was just trying to convince myself. And I wasn’t sharing the full picture. I still have nightmares. I am depressed.

Instead of dealing with these issues, I’ve always tried to find a way around them. Most recently, I thought that if I could come home and work for the city I love so much as its mayor, I could finally solve my problems. I thought if I focused exclusively on service to my neighbors in my hometown, that I could fill the hole inside of me. But it’s just getting worse.

So after 11 years of trying to outrun depression and PTSD symptoms, I have finally concluded that it’s faster than me. That I have to stop running, turn around, and confront it.

I finally went to the VA in Kansas City yesterday and have started the process to get help there regularly. To allow me to concentrate on my mental health, I’ve decided that I will not be running for mayor of Kansas City. I truly appreciate all the support so many people in Kansas City and across the country have shown me since I started this campaign. But I can’t work on myself and run a campaign the way I want to at the same time, so I’m choosing to work on my depression.

I’ll also be taking a step back from day-to-day operations at Let America Vote for the time being, but the organization will continue moving forward. We are doing vital work across the country to stop voter suppression and will keep doing so through November and beyond.

Having made the decision not to run for mayor, my next question was whether I would be public about the reason why. I decided to be public for two reasons: First, I think being honest will help me through this. And second, I hope it helps veterans and everyone else across the country working through mental health issues realize that you don’t have to try to solve it on your own. Most people probably didn’t see me as someone that could be depressed and have had PTSD symptoms for over decade, but I am and I have. If you’re struggling with something similar, it’s OK. That doesn’t make you less of a person.

I wish I would have sought help sooner, so if me going public with my struggle makes just one person seek assistance, doing this publicly is worth it to me. The VA Crisis Line is 1–800–273–8255, and non-veterans can use that number as well.

I’ll close by saying this isn’t goodbye. Once I work through my mental health challenges, I fully intend to be working shoulder to shoulder with all of you again. But I’m passing my oar to you for a bit. I hope you’ll grab it and fight like hell to make this country the place we know it can