Jason Kander, an army veteran who went on to become a Missouri politician and was this year running as the Democratic candidate for mayor of Kansas City, announced this week that he was dropping out of the race. No one asked him to do so, there was no burgeoning secret scandal. Instead, he decided to step aside of his own volition, to focus on his mental health.
“Last Tuesday, I found out that we were going to raise more money than any Kansas City mayoral campaign ever has in a single quarter,” Kander wrote in a blog post. “But instead of celebrating that accomplishment, I found myself on the phone with the [Veterans Affairs’] Veterans Crisis Line, tearfully conceding that, yes, I have had suicidal thoughts. And it wasn’t the first time.”
Kander fits the conventional description of an “alpha male.” He served in the army. He’s highly successful in his career. He knows how to use a gun. In a campaign video he filmed for an unsuccessful run at one of Missouri’s US Senate seats, Kander puts together a firearm while blindfolded and challenges his opponent, incumbent Republican senator Roy Blunt, to do the same.
That makes his decision to drop out of the mayoral race striking. Kander’s willingness to talk about his mental health, and to make his career a secondary concern, goes against what has long been considered the behavior of “real men.”
Societal pressure on men to suppress their emotions has been increasingly recognized in recent years as a form of “toxic masculinity”: a male stereotype that encourages destructive behavior. Thomas Page McBee, a former Quartz editor who’s written extensively about masculinity, has highlighted ways are encouraged to mask their vulnerability:
Men are taught that to be “a man” is to stay silent about mental health issues, to not acknowledge their severity even to themselves. The consequences can be dire. Men are at a far higher risk of suicide than women, perhaps in part because women are for more likely to seek help for treating depression than men.
Kander himself denied his own symptoms for more than a decade. “When I wrote in my book that I was lucky to not have PTSD, I was just trying to convince myself,” he wrote in his online statement. Kander, however, is now reframing the conversation about mental health: by publicly declaring his decision to “stop running, turn around, and confront” his PTSD and depression, Kander shows that masculinity is not devoid of vulnerability. Gun-toting, successful army veterans get depression too, and they seek help for it.
And the high-profile support Kander has received in response to his announcement is a sign that others, too, are ready to embrace a version of masculinity that allows for vulnerability.
As a man in the public eye, Kander’s openness has the power to shift expectations further, to encourage more men to address mental health concerns. Slowly, more and more men are recognizing that masculinity is not defined by suppressing all emotions. Even the most conventionally masculine men can be vulnerable.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at 1-800-273-8255 in the US. Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in the UK. Here is a list of crisis lines around the world.