Kander risks political career, furthers mental health awareness

In the face of a conservative national government, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander appeared to be the Democratic Party’s new golden boy. Over the past year, he’s had a private meeting with President Obama, been hailed by Joe Biden at donor dinners, become a New York Times bestseller, won a contributor’s contract with CNN and broken fundraising records with his Kansas City mayoral campaign.

The man seemed to be on the fast track to stardom. A viral campaign ad showing Kander assembling a rifle while blindfolded has amassed over 1.6 million views on YouTube. Despite losing the senate race to Republican incumbent Roy Blunt, the margin was thin for the red state.

In 2016 Kander won the most votes of any democratic candidate running across Missouri, including Hillary Clinton. Whispers among the left hinted at the possibility of his name appearing on the 2020 presidential ticket. No one seemed to notice that behind the shine of Kander’s success was inner turmoil.

“Instead of celebrating [my] accomplishment, I found myself on the phone with the VA’s [Veterans Association] Veterans Crisis Line, tearfully conceding that, yes, I had suicidal thoughts,” Kander said in a personal note published in Medium and on his campaign website. “And it wasn’t the first time.”

Kander announced Oct. 2 that he was withdrawing from the mayoral race to focus on treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to Mayo Clinic, “[post]-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it.” Symptoms vary but generally include intrusive memories, avoiding reminders, unfavorable changes in thought and physical reactions.

Before his career as a politician, Kander served a tour in Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer. Though 11 years have passed since then, he said the experience still impacts his day-to-day life.

The stereotypical image of PTSD portrayed by hyperbolic war movies and news coverage is a psychotic and violent “crazy war vet.” This may be one of the reasons Kander’s announcement was so surprising. It seems unreasonable to say a passionate yet collected politician who claimed in his own memoir “Outside the Wire” that he was lucky to not suffer from the disorder, would in turn be affected by it.

Kander’s struggle is a perfect example of the non-discriminatory nature of mental health issues. They affect both the seemingly weak and seemingly strong alike. They don’t care whether you have important legislation to pass or college papers to write.

The power of Kander’s actions lies in their unabashed publicity. The only way to combat the stigma associated with mental health is to talk about it openly, and Jason Kander is leading by example.

“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,” Kander’s personal note stated. “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.”

He spoke further about attempting to solve his problems alone and his fear of what would be the result if he couldn’t.

“I went online and filled out the VA forms, but I left boxes unchecked – too scared to acknowledge my true symptoms,” Kander said. “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.”

Kander’s apprehension was not unfounded. Stigma has reared its ugly head in the political sphere before.

In the 1972 Presidential race, Democratic candidate George McGovern chose Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate. Eagleton did not disclose that he had been hospitalized several times for depression. When his secret was eventually revealed, Eagleton was forced to step down. That year, Richard Nixon won by the largest margin in history.

“The public awareness and appreciation for the range of mental illness is still clouded by misunderstanding and prejudice, and in the political arena, it is not well tolerated,” said psychiatrist Walt Menninger. “It’s another instance of the stigma that accompanies most mental illness.”

Times have changed, if only slightly, and so has the national discussion of mental health.While he currently lacks an elected position, it is likely that Kander will eventually return to the political arena. He remains the founder of Let America Vote, an organization which seeks to end voter suppression across the country.

Kander’s message has the potential to especially resonate with the young adult population. National Institute of Mental Health statistics suggest that while 18 to 25 year olds are more likely to have any mental illness than older adults, they are the age group least likely to receive treatment.

Because Kansas and Missouri refrained from expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, treatment options for the financially unstable and uninsured generation are hard to come by. Early intervention can make the difference in mental health treatment, but the average duration between the development of symptoms and medical intervention is 8 to 10 years.

Approximately 1,100 undergraduate students commit suicide every year in the United States. That’s more than the entire student body of William Jewell.

For students interested in seeking help, short-term individual psychotherapy is available through counseling services. Sessions are free and confidential.

Photo courtesy of  KCUR.

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