Thursday, October 04, 2018

Jason Kander and us

Yesterday, Jason Kander, the former Missouri Secretary of State, the 2016 Democratic candidate for US Senator from Missouri, and a rising star in the Democratic Party, dropped out of the race for mayor of his hometown, Kansas City, in order to seek help with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. It was an incredibly courageous thing for any politician to do, as everyone should acknowledge. This is something that anyone, in any line of work, OUGHT to feel free to do, but we all know that’s not the case, and that’s why his going public matters so much.

He posted this statement on his official site:
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 be.
Kander’s statement puts his struggle into perspective, and also helps the rest of us to understand something of what he’s experienced. He’s certainly not alone. ThinkProgress noted in their reporting on Kander’s announcement:
According to the VA, between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. About 12 percent of Desert Storm veterans have PTSD, as do about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans. [Link in the original]
I hope that when he is ready he runs for office again, because his honesty and sincerity—which he showed in his work for years—is sorely needed in the USA. But when I first heard the news, the first think I thought was that I was worried about my how fellow Americans will react. We all know that the phrase “mental illness” carries massive stigma for some people, and far too many are prejudiced against people with mental illness. Obviously people, including politicians, should be evaluated by their character and abilities and talents and experience, not by physical or mental illness. Americans don’t have a great history with that.

In 1972, the Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee, US Senator Tom Eagleton, had to withdraw from the race when it was revealed he’d received “shock treatment” for his depression. Eagleton was Senator from Missouri and, ironically, held the seat now held by the Republican who narrowly defeated Kander in 2016.

There’s one important thing to remember about his chances in the future: PTSD affected potentially millions of US military veterans and their families and loved ones. Add in those who have had depression, and there is a massive number of voters who are least likely to be prejudiced against him because of what hes been through. Ad to that younger voters who are far less judgemental than their parents of grandparents and he still has a future in electoral politics—if he wants it.

The only thing that truly matters is that Jason Kander is seeking out the help he needs. By being open and public about it, he may encourage others to seek out the help they need, and he may help to destigmatise mental illness, if only somewhat. Much as I would like to see him run for office in the future, it’s more important that he is well.

I don’t know Kander, of course, but I have watched him over the past two years and been impressed since the 2016 campaign. Because of that, I wish him well. There are plenty of people who will take up the oar for him.

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