Jason Kander opens up about his struggle with mental illness in the political spotlight
As the 2020 presidential election neared, there was significant talk that Jason Kander would run for the Democratic nomination.
Kander, a former intelligence officer in Afghanistan, served in the Missouri House of Representatives and then as the state’s secretary of state. In 2016, he lost the U.S. Senate election to Republican incumbent Roy Blunt, but handily outplayed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the state.
In 2017, in a final interview from the Oval Office, President Barack Obama was asked about the future of the Democratic Party. He named Kander.
That same year, Kander launched a political group called Let America Vote, dedicated to ending voter suppression.
Yet behind the scenes, Kander was struggling. He had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since returning from Afghanistan, a secret he hid from everyone, including himself.
Instead of running for president, Kander made the surprise announcement in June 2018 that he would instead throw his hat in the ring for mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. He was widely seen as the race favourite, which is why in October it was even more shocking when he announced he was quitting.
Kander went on to publicly reveal for the first time that he struggled with mental health issues, including depression, nightmares and suicidal thoughts. He withdrew from public life and asked for help.
Since then, Kander has continued to speak out about mental health, worked with veterans and dipped back into Democratic politics.
He came out with a new book, “Invisible Storm – A Soldier’s Memoirs of Politics and PTSD”, which hits shelves on July 5. An exclusive excerpt provided to HuffPost is below.
Sometimes the journey down begins at the very top. For me, the trip even included a stopover in paradise.
After New Hampshire, Senator Brian Schatz arranged for my family and I to come to Hawaii to give a speech, and the Hawaii Democrats put us up in a resort for a few days. To my surprise, I felt safe there, safer than I had in a long time. I slowed down. I ignored my phone. I ran on the beach. I learned to swim at True. I lay down next to Diana while we both read books.
I tried to take stock. I realized how exhausted I was. I had lived like this for so long that I couldn’t remember that it hadn’t always been like this.
The feeling of being constantly in danger that I had brought back from Afghanistan had not gone away, but it was milder. It’s been so long since I’ve felt anything but guilt and fear, so long since I’ve let my guard down.
For the past few months I had hinted at how exhausted I was, but lately things had gotten worse.
I was numb to the heights of the election campaign. It was like having an out of body experience, watching Jason Kander walk into donor meetings and give speeches. I had more and more difficulty concentrating. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation caused by the night terrors, maybe it was something more, but I was starting to have thoughts that frightened me. It wasn’t that I was suicidal, it was more like I was figuring out why some people chose suicide. All I knew was that I didn’t want to feel like this anymore. I was afraid of what might happen to me if I continued, but I was even more terrified of what might happen if I stopped.
People often ask me what made me finally seek help. Just as there was not a single moment of trauma that caused this problem in the first place, there was not a single event that caused me to seek real help.
For several weeks, an obscure idea had been going around in my mind: I was at a sort of crossroads. This often manifested as a line from the movie The Shawshank Takeover: “Busy living or busy dying.”
“You have to be a bit crazy to play politics, but what you can’t be is mentally ill.”
One night in late September, after another stressful day of simultaneously running for mayor and leading Let America Vote, I felt I had hit a new low – a feeling that, while things had been steadily getting worse for years, now for a few months they had gotten worse even faster which was scary. Sitting next to Diana on the sofa in our living room, I was struck by the idea that it was time to try anything.
I still clung to the idea that maybe I could stop the problem where it was – or at least escape the growing feeling that if I stopped existing, things would be better for everything. the world.
This thought process – like a tiny seed of hope sprouting through a crack in the pavement of depression – had been percolating for a few weeks. That’s why I had already looked up the Veterans Crisis Line number.
You have to be a bit crazy to play politics, but what you can not being is mentally ill. Or at least that’s what it seems if you look back at the past few hundred years of American government (which began as a rebellion against a king who has been mental illness). Even a suspicion that a candidate or someone in government has a psychological problem is a death sentence in politics. Look at Thomas Eagleton. He was a political phenomenon: Attorney General of Missouri at thirty-one, United States Senator from Missouri at thirty-nine. You could call him another young midwestern vet. In the 1972 election, George McGovern hired him to be his running mate against Nixon.
Then, two weeks after the Democratic Convention, news broke: Eagleton had been hospitalized multiple times for electroshock treatment for clinical depression.
At first, McGovern claimed he would stay with Eagleton “1,000 percent”. Six days later, he asked Eagleton to step down from the ticket. It wasn’t cruelty – leading psychiatrists, including Eagleton’s own doctors, had told him depression could return and thus endanger the country. The episode allowed Republicans to claim that McGovern – already portrayed as a wild-eyed southpaw – had shitty judgment. He lost everywhere except Massachusetts and DC. A Democratic strategist called Eagleton “one of the great train wrecks of all time.”
Attitudes toward mental health have changed since then (Mike Dukakis, who was also crushed in a presidential election, is now an ambassador for the value of electroconvulsive therapy) — but they haven’t. this a lot. Although I knew I needed help, I was a politician after all.
The election was only a few months away. I didn’t know what treatment involved, but I knew I couldn’t do it and run for mayor at the same time. My daily schedule was packed from sunrise to 10 p.m. with meetings, conferences, and calls, and ever since I had hung up the phone after speaking with the woman at the Veterans Crisis Line, I had lost energy and desire to do anything.
I finally had to admit that the story I had been telling myself for a decade, that I will feel better when. . . was a lie. Winning a job had never made him better, and being mayor would be no different.
I had no idea if I was even capable of improving – if the damage was permanent – but finally, I was ready to devote myself entirely to discovery. I had finally arrived in Rock Bottom, the international capital of zero cum to give.
Two days later, I entered the VA for the first time. I answered all the questions again. I met the psychiatrist who assumed I was hearing voices. The big, heavy, creaking VA machine began to spin its wheels. That was – I thought at the time – the easy part. Getting there was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The next part was more difficult.
Adapted from INVISIBLE STORM: A Soldier’s Memoirs of Politics and PTSD by Jason Kander. Copyright © 2022 by Jason Kander. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.