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How Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander's PTSD Became A Family Affair

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Jason Kander's withdrawl from Kansas City mayoral race last year caught many by surprise. Ten months later, "I'm doing fantastic," he says. "I'm doing the best I've done in about 12 years."

It's not often that a candidate quitting a local mayor's race would get national media attention, but that's exactly what happened last October when Jason Kander announced he was dropping his bid to be Kansas City's chief executive.

By then Kander had served as a Missouri state representative and secretary of state, he had given Roy Blunt a scare in the 2016 U.S. Senate election, and he had flirted with a 2020 run for the presidency. A post on his campaign website and Facebook on October 2 explained his decision to quit.

"So after 11 years of trying to outrun depression and PTSD symptoms, I have finally concluded that it's faster than me," he wrote. "To allow me to concentrate on my mental health, I've decided that I will not be running for mayor of Kansas City."

Kander's PTSD stems from his time as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan. His job kept him away from firefights, but he was frequently alone and interacting with "unsavory characters." Kander says his backup often comprised a single translator who traveled with him.

Ten months after his mayoral shock wave, Kander is making the rounds again. He's feeling better than he has in years, he tells anyone who asks — and nearly everyone is asking. But he was not the only Kander suffering and seeking recovery.

"I thought what I had was anxiety," says Diana Kander, his wife. "If you live with somebody or you're around post-traumatic stress symptoms long enough — and for me, it was 12 years — you can start developing some of the same symptoms."

The condition is known as secondary traumatic stress, and it can show up when a person is repeatedly exposed to the firsthand trauma experienced by someone else. Doctors, nurses, and counselors are particularly at risk, but anyone can be affected. By one estimate, up to half of the psychotherapists who treat mental health clients with PTSD could have symptoms of secondary trauma.

Trauma firsthand

While the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 10-20% of recent combat veterans experience some PTSD, recognizing and admitting there is a mental health problem is often a process in and of itself. For Jason Kander, the signs were there for years, he now admits.

The hypervigilance he honed overseas showed up in ways people outside his immediate family would not necessarily notice. On nights when he could sleep he had "hellscape" nightmares paired with sleep paralysis. When he couldn't sleep he patrolled the house, going from room to room to calm his nerves.

"I had a more traditional notion of what combat was. I would look at my friends who were experiencing post-traumatic stress, who had been in firefights, for instance, and I'd think they earned it," he says. "I just thought I was a jerk who went to meetings."

It took a clinical social worker with the VA to help get that idea out of his head.

"She said, 'Yeah but (as an intelligence officer) you went to meetings in the most dangerous place in the world with people who might want to kill you,'" he remembers.

Parts of Kander's trauma were more noticeable. He says people knew, for instance, "Jason sits facing the door, Jason doesn't sleep well ... Jason doesn't like it when people sit behind him in a meeting," but an explicit connection to PTSD wasn't made. Instead, he says, people thought "that's just how Jason is."

Despite it all, his political prospects kept improving. Many thought he was a shoo-in to replace Mayor Sly James.

"The mayoral race was going really well, and the better it went the more down he became," Diana Kander says.

One day the couple had a particularly scary conversation about his suicidal thoughts, she says, and he decided to call the VA's suicide hotline. The call, and the practiced way it was treated by the person who answered, gave him a new perspective.

"I mean, this was not a unique phone call to her. I sounded the same as everybody else who'd called that day," Kander says. "That was kind of a wake-up."

Within 24 hours, Kander had announced he was dropping out of the mayor's race.

Secondhand struggles

Diana Kander's breakthrough came after her husband started getting professional help. She says conversations with his therapist and others planted a seed in her that didn't really germinate until she read an article about a military spouse with secondary traumatic stress.

Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Diana Kander heard from therapists about secondary traumatic stress, but it was when she read about military spouses who struggle with it when "it just seemed very real for me," she says.

"They described hypervigilance and then they said, you know, that she's never served — her husband served," she says. "I just started crying."

"He would wake me up and tell me the nightmares every night," she says, "so even though I wasn't experiencing them, I was really living them."

For years Jason Kander shared his nightmares, fear, and trauma with his wife.

"I was the only person that Jason was talking to about everything," she says, and in that context, his anxiety and all the patrolling around the house made sense.

"It's a very physiological response," she says. "When your adrenaline and your cortisol are spiking all the time your body begins to fatigue out of it, and we were two very high-functioning cortisol spikers."

The stress symptoms can also show up in kids, which is why the couple took special care to insulate their 5-year-old son, True.

"Around the time of the announcement, there was a lot of crying," Diana Kander says. "We were like, 'You go watch TV, we're just going to cry in this room for a little bit.'"

At that moment, the Kanders told their son that Daddy was not going to be mayor — he wanted instead to spend more time at home with the family.

"As he gets older, you know, he'll have access to Google, so before he does that we will explain the rest of the story," Jason Kander says.

Despite their shared trauma, it took separate therapeutic approaches to get the couple back to a healthy place; prolonged exposure for him, somatic therapy for her. The process instilled in them the belief that there is a PTSD solution out there for everyone.

"A lot of people think that they've tried something and it didn't work, so nothing will work for them," Diana Kander says.

"We're all just on the theory that you should just keep trying things until you find something that works for you because there will be something that does," Jason Kander says.

Recovery, not a cure

The Kanders know full well traumatic stress isn't something that can be cured. Recovery is a lifelong process. There are good days and there are bad days.

One of the best days Jason Kander remembers since he stopped politicking was when his wife shared a bit of news with him, despite the fact he was on a media hiatus.

"A couple of mornings after my announcement ... she said that she had read that calls to the VA helpline had like tripled or something in the days since," he says. "I got really emotional about that and I remember saying, and I still feel, that was the first time I ever felt like I actually played a role in helping some people come home safely."

The tidbit of news was a not-so-scientific sign that they had made the right decision — that speaking publically about Jason Kander's trauma would help destigmatize the condition and encouraged others to seek treatment.

"It's an injury," he says. "Like any other injury, it's not something you cure, but it's something you can treat and you can recover."

About a year into his recovery, Jason Kander has taken a job at Veterans Community Project, a local organization that helps veterans access the services they need, whether it's connecting people to mental health help or transitional housing.

"It's playing a large role in effectively eliminating veterans homelessness in Kansas City," he says. "My role is to expand it nationally."

Credit Christina Elias / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (front left) and Bryan Meyer (front right), co-founder and CEO of Veterans Community Project, visit a tiny house in the VCP village for homeless veterans in July.

He was spotted recently escorting Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg around VCP's tiny home village at 89th Street and Troost Avenue. That opportunity helped him realize something about his own political ambitions.

"The visit ended and, you know, he went to go get in the black SUV with staff and drive off, and (I thought), 'that used to be me,'" he says. "I remember being really struck by the fact that I was really happy not to get in that SUV. I'm really, really happy about what I'm doing now."

He's also overjoyed that he can pick up and drop off his son from school almost every day.

Diana Kander, too, is happy with where things are for now.

"It was really difficult at the time, but it was the best thing for us, both personally and professionally," she says. "It's been the busiest year I've ever had speaking (publicly)."

The future, though, seems a little more up in the air. While plenty of folks in Kansas City would love to see the Kander name on a ballot again, the pair seems content to let those hopes hang.

"I don't have any part of me that wants to run for office right now," Jason Kander says. Then he quickly adds, "I'm open to the idea that that could change."

As for whether a candidate with this amount of mental and emotional baggage can claim victory, Diana Kander is optimistic.

"Everybody's struggling with something, and the more vulnerable somebody can be about what they're struggling with makes them more authentic," she says. "I think an authentic president would be a sharp difference from what we have now."

Jason and Diana Kander spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at luke@kcur.org or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.