Jason Kander, an Afghanistan war veteran and former U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri, dropped out of the race for mayor of Kansas City this week, citing a need to seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Kander’s admission helps to reduce stigma around mental health by being open, honest and courageous, says an expert on PTSD at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Mental health stigma continues to be strong and pervasive,” said Ryan Lindsay, associate professor of practice at the Brown School and an expert in the application of Prolonged Exposure Therapy for complicated PTSD.
“As a society, we have a long way to go to address the prevalence and impact of stigma of those suffering daily,” he said. “What people fail to understand is that mental health disorders are frankly amplifications of typical human experiences — our systems are either over- or underfunctioning. Because we cannot ‘see’ mental health conditions, people apply their own understanding of their experiences to others and oversimplify the complexities that are at play.”
The key societal consequence of stigma is rejection, Lindsay said.
“The personal consequences of stigma prevent people from seeking help, sticking with treatment and lead to withdrawal from loved ones,” he said. “One approach to combating shame and stigma is to make the experience public in a way that fits with one’s values. However, this is extremely difficult for a person to do because it means taking a risk — a risk to one’s status, to one’s family, to one’s mental health as the fallout is not always predictable.”
This is why Kander’s statement is so significant and meaningful, he said.
“At its core, it normalizes the experiences to many who are struggling,” Lindsay said. “The visibility raises awareness, promotes help-seeking and simultaneously increases hope and reduces shame. It takes courage to make public the presence of mental health conditions because it means directly confronting the stigma-driven narrative of mental health difficulties as weakness.”
Millions of Americans suffer from mental health conditions; many undiagnosed and most undertreated, he said.
“Less than half of those living with a mental health condition receive mental health services of any type,” Lindsay said. “The reasons are varied and complicated. It is very difficult to compare our own internal experiences to the internal experiences of others — therefore, the result is that people have a very difficult time understanding the boundaries between what is typical and what are signs and symptoms of a mental health condition. Stigma then amplifies these consequences. The emotional consequence of stigma is shame, originating from the fear of rejection from people you care about or a community that one respects.
“My hope is that Jason Kander’s courage will help those suffering to reach out and seek help from qualified mental health professionals like social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists in their area,” he said.
Visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website for a list of PTSD resources and places to find help.