Listen to What Next:
On Feb. 16, right after Sen. John Fetterman announced that he was checking himself into Walter Reed for inpatient treatment of his depression, Jason Kander sent a provocative tweet. “John Fetterman is far from the first senator [to] do this. But he’s the first to have the stones to announce it,” it said.
“The claim that I’m making is pure speculation, but I’m sure I’m right,” Kander explained to me. “The chances that he’s the only one dealing with something like this right now in the Senate are just about zero.” For Kander, this knowledge is hard-earned. He himself ran for Senate in an attempt to flip a red seat blue—the way John Fetterman did. He has also run for mayor of Kansas City and was considered a long-shot bid for the presidency, but eventually, Kander dropped out of politics. And the reason why was his mental health. In his case, he had PTSD from the war in Afghanistan. Among other symptoms, it made him suicidal.
Kander’s from Missouri. He knows, keenly, how uncomfortable it can be for a politician to talk about their mental health. Back in the ’70s, one of Missouri’s senators was tapped to run for vice president but got bumped off the ticket when it was revealed that he’d been hospitalized for depression. Even now, Kander sees this hesitancy when people approach him because they’ve heard his story and have one of their own.
“Frequently people begin that conversation with a disclaimer,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Well, I didn’t go to war or anything,’ and I always stop them. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what that has to do with anything. My brain doesn’t know what your brain experienced.’ ” Kander looks at John Fetterman, and he thinks, Well, he didn’t go to war either, which means maybe this moment is one more step forward for how we talk about mental health and leadership. “Each time something like this happens, I don’t know if it’s a turning point, but it certainly advances the ball.”
On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke about what might lie ahead for John Fetterman with Kander, a politician who’s been there. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Jason Kander has been in the public eye for a while. After serving in Afghanistan, he got into politics, starting with the Missouri House of Representatives. Then he went on to become the Missouri secretary of state. But he started to get real national attention back in 2016. He was running for Senate at the time, and he was a real long shot, considering he was taking on an incumbent, Republican Roy Blunt. But he made this ad that went viral.
Kander ended up losing that Missouri Senate race, but his political career had taken off anyway. In fact, in one of his last interviews as president, when Barack Obama was asked about the future of the Democratic Party, Jason Kander was the first person he mentioned. This shoutout sparked talk of a presidential run. It also put Kander in the same rarefied circles as John Fetterman, both of them anointed with a glowing hope for the Democratic Party.
Jason Kander: I wish I had gotten treatment prior to entering that arena, because then I really would have had fun and enjoyed it. But instead, my undiagnosed, unacknowledged PTSD was causing me to have terrible nightmares all night, get no sleep for about 10 years, be paranoid about being in danger all the time, and a host of other really fun symptoms. What that meant for me was that it eventually also really affected my self-esteem. And I genuinely believed that I was an irredeemable person and that the only way to redeem myself was with these accomplishments or by going out and saving the world, basically.
So running for office was kind of survival for you.
Yeah. I was fortunate that I had that available to me. People will come up to me and say, “Well, unlike you, I turned to drugs or alcohol.” I’m always like, “Look, let’s not act like I was anything other than lucky that I had this self-medication opportunity in front of me.” I was using that as a salve, as a way to try to argue back against what was happening to my self-esteem, which I had never had problems with prior to deploying and coming home and it getting worse and worse over time.
Despite the fact that he was feeling worse, Kander couldn’t stop running for office. After exploring that presidential run, he decided to think smaller, and, in 2018, he put his name in as a candidate for mayor of Kansas City. It was immediately clear that Kander was the leading candidate in this race.
It was the first time in my life I’d ever not been the underdog. And boy, that should have been the most fun campaign to run. Because I’d gone from—back when I ran for the state legislature, nobody had any idea who I was. And I knocked on 20,000 doors to get elected. And then when I ran for secretary of state, we put 90,000 miles on the car, and I won by not very many votes. And here I was, I announced I was running for mayor and then I talked about it on Seth Meyers like two days later.
But cleaning up didn’t feel good.
No, because I was just getting worse and worse at that point, and because the reason I had chosen to run for mayor was that I was so exhausted from the way I was living. And so I had pivoted from this track of running for president. And I just said, “I got to go home.” What I ended up feeling was that maybe what’s wrong with me is I’ve got to go make a difference that I can see, and I can make a difference on violent crime in my town—my kids are sixth-generation Kansas Citians, so I care deeply about Kansas City. And I thought, Well, that’s what will heal me. That will fill up the void inside me. And in reality, it just got worse and worse and worse—inability to sleep, nightmares, hypervigilance, feeling like I was in danger all the time, shame, guilt, this ever-present anxiety, and other things. And I had had this creeping suicidal ideation here and there for a few years, but now it was getting pretty bad. Now I was thinking more and more about ending my life.
Yeah, the New York Times reported that your wife knew about this, and so she always made sure that she walked into the house ahead of your son because she worried … she didn’t want him to find you.
Right. It was not a good time. And she was the only person who knew.
This is when Kander realized that he simply needed to drop out of politics altogether. He wrote a public letter explaining why, saying, “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.”
A lot of people focus on the openness and vulnerability of the public letter you wrote announcing you were dropping out. And it is remarkably open and vulnerable and honest about the fact that you couldn’t keep running from your symptoms. But there’s also been reporting that after you sent the letter out, you basically looked at your campaign manager and said, “It sucks to feel so weak.”
I thought that was so honest.
I don’t see it that way anymore, but at that moment, I just felt really defeated. I felt like I had been trying to outrun this thing and it had caught me. What I didn’t understand at the time was actually what I was doing was choosing to get into the ring against this thing and kick its ass.
And your wife pointed out that you didn’t know if you were trading away being mayor for getting better. You just knew that you were giving up the thing that you were great at to deal with the thing that was haunting you.
Furthermore, I assumed—because at the time there was no precedent for this sort of thing—that I wasn’t just giving up the chance to be mayor. I figured that this was the end of me as a political figure of any kind. And frankly, I was like, I don’t even know—will I get a job? So yeah, I was trading in the one thing that was going really well—my career—for a leap of faith that I could get better. But I also was at the point where I didn’t really see an option. The international capital of zero F’s left to give is rock bottom, and that’s where I was.
In some ways you did the opposite of John Fetterman, because when he had his initial stroke a little less than a year ago, he stayed in the race even though he had significant auditory processing challenges. How do you think about those approaches now?
I would push back on the premise a little, because don’t forget: I came home from Afghanistan in 2007. I ran for the state legislature in 2008. I had PTSD then. I didn’t acknowledge it to myself. I ran for reelection in 2010.
So you’ve been putting it off, is what you’re saying?
Right. I ran for the secretary of state’s office in 2012 and won. I ran for the U.S. Senate in 2016. I pretty much ran for president in 2017 and 2018, and then I jumped into the race for mayor. John Fetterman is doing what I should have done. He’s like, Oh, this is going on. I’m going to go address this and get back to being myself. I didn’t do that. I was the guy who looked at a broken arm and said, “It will heal.” And then, 10 years later, I couldn’t move my arm. And then I was like, I probably need to go to the doctor and probably need to make it a big priority and focus on only that. So I would actually say he’s doing it right and I did it wrong. Look, I wouldn’t change anything for myself, but I certainly wouldn’t advise anybody to do what I did.
You said this thing that I thought was interesting. You said the one place you don’t want to be famous is a psych ward. But I imagine it’s really hard for someone like John Fetterman—covered in tattoos, over 6 feet tall—to hide. How does that impact your treatment when you’re dealing with something very private, but you’re a public person?
The good thing is, at least most of the clinicians are such professionals that when I still go occasionally to sit down with my therapist at the VA, it’s very rare that somebody stops me who works there and is like, “Can I get a selfie?” That doesn’t really happen. They’re professionals about it. But what is the more interesting, or the more difficult challenge, is once you’ve had treatment, once you’ve started to get better, the rest of the world sees you through the last thing they knew.
So, like, Oh, there’s that guy who dropped out of the race to go get treatment.
Right. For a while afterwards people would come up to me and instead of being like, “Oh, I love your podcast,” or “I voted for you,” or the stuff they used to say, they would be like, “Oh man, I’ve really struggled with mental health.” Which was great, but my wife would joke, “Oh, well, you’re the most famous depressed person in America. Congratulations.” And that’s something I’ve had to reckon with. I can remember, like, somebody in the produce aisle would lean over and whisper, “The world is a better place because you’re in it.” And it’s like, I appreciate what you’re trying to do there, but that person felt an obligation to try and convince me in that moment not to kill myself. And I find myself consoling that person, like, “Hey, thanks. I’m actually doing pretty good.” And that’s one of the harder parts about being a public person and going through this, because your interactions with people after you’ve addressed this tend to reinforce the way you saw yourself before, instead of the way you see yourself now.
For me, in my case, an advantage I had that Sen. Fetterman won’t is that I was not in public office. I took eight months out of public life. So I wore a hat and grew a beard. And either people didn’t recognize me or just thought I looked really unapproachable. So I didn’t have those interactions as much.
Did that work—hiding? You deleted Twitter, too, for a while, right?
Yeah, it worked for a while. And then eventually what happened was—it’s actually kind of funny. It was getting toward the end of my regimen of therapy, and I was doing quite well. I was focusing on other things. I was getting into really good physical shape. And my therapist asked me, “OK, originally, your goal right before you came in here was the presidency.” I was like, “Yeah.” And he goes, “And now your goal is what, like, six-pack abs?” And I was like, “Yeah, I think I might get there.” And he goes, “So do we need to broaden your goals now that you’re doing better?” And I was like, “I don’t know, I’m really enjoying keeping my world small.” And he said, “OK, well, also we kind of both agreed that one of your goals was to be able to speak about all this stuff publicly to help other people.” And I was like, “Yeah, but the public adulation stuff, that was kind of my drug. I’m not sure I want to go back to that.” And he thought I should try. And he was encouraging me.
And we had been working with this analogy where I said to him, “If I had come in here for substance counseling, you wouldn’t try to get me back to my job as a beer taster.” And he agreed with that, and we went with that for a while. And then eventually he was like, “OK, but what if it turns out you weren’t an alcoholic, but you had trauma? We’ve dealt with the underlying trauma, and now maybe you can have a drink every once in a while.” And so that’s when I was like, “All right, that’s a good argument.” That’s when I did the Lester Holt interview on NBC Nightly News.
It was my first public appearance in 10 months. And I was not nervous for the interview. I was nervous for how I would feel after the interview, if I would feel that adrenaline rush that would make me not have to feel anything else. But I didn’t. It ended, and that night while it was airing, my wife and my son and I went out to dinner at a pizza place with friends, and we didn’t even watch it. And I didn’t go on social media and look at what people said about it. And that’s when I was like, “OK, I think I’m doing better.”
What does your story tell you about the road ahead for John Fetterman? I know it’s different, but one thing I’m hearing you say is the road’s long.
The road is really actually great. What he’s doing right now is really difficult. One of the biggest problems when it comes to trauma and mental health in this country is everybody thinks that it’s a matter of convincing men in particular, especially veterans, that it’s strong to get help, not weak. And I actually think that the majority of Americans accept that at this point. And it’s really more about convincing people that this stuff works, because in my case, I didn’t really learn that the majority of people who go to the VA for PTSD treatment actually get to a point where it doesn’t disrupt their life anymore at all. I thought that was really rare, because when you think about it, how many portrayals, either in the news or on screen, are there of people with PTSD who have achieved post-traumatic growth? Most of the mental health stuff that you see is exhibitionism. It’s voyeurism. Let’s watch this car accident real slowly as we drive by. What you don’t see are the people who have addressed it and have gotten better. And the truth is, that’s what happens the vast majority of the time.
So do you say you’re cured from your PTSD?
No, you don’t get cured of PTSD because PTSD is based on memories. And unless you get rid of the memories, you’re not going to get rid of PTSD. But you can manage it. It only limits you if you don’t manage it. I see this stuff on social media and people are like, “Oh, I wish Jason Kander would run for senator, president, or whatever. But unfortunately, that darn PTSD, he can’t.” And it’s funny to me because I’m like, “Yeah, you don’t get it.” I’m in the best mental health I’ve been. This doesn’t limit me. I’d be, in my opinion, a much better candidate now. It’s just that because I feel so good, I don’t want to. I’ve got kids that are 9 and 2, and I have the ability to be present with them now in a way that I didn’t before. I’m coaching my son’s Little League team. My daughter and I are best buddies. I’m just enjoying the hell out of my life. And the difference now is that I no longer carry the guilt of believing I hadn’t done enough for my country. I now have come to the realization that I’ve actually done quite a lot and that America and I are square. And I may run for office again one day, I don’t know.
Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.
I was going to say: Are you going to run?
I might. I don’t rule it out. In fact, when people ask me, I go out of my way to say I still think I’d be a really good president. The reason I do that is not to preserve an option for me, because I’ll probably never run, but I do it because somewhere there’s somebody listening to this who is going to interview for a job, a young man or woman who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and some way or another they’re going to either assume or find out that they have been treated for PTSD. And I want that person to know that there’s nothing that limits that person from doing whatever job that they’re looking at hiring them for. And the way that I try to demonstrate that is me saying, “Yeah, maybe I will run for president one day. I think I’d still be really good at it because PTSD would not keep me from doing that.”
Do you think you’re going to try to reach out to Sen. Fetterman in a few months?
I’ll just tell you what I’ve done. We have a bunch of mutual friends, and I’ve just said, “Hey, when he comes out of this, I don’t need him to have any additional obligations or anybody to call back, but if he wants to talk, please make sure to let him know. Here’s my information, and if you ever want to talk, I’m there.”
State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.