Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow has leant her talents to promoting suicide prevention among veterans, directing a public service advertisement that asks former service members to seek help just as they would encourage others in crisis to do.
For Suicide Prevention Month in September, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Ad Council launched new public service announcements Wednesday as part of the VA's two-year-old "Don't Wait. Reach Out" prevention campaign.
The new ads, which feature real veterans, not actors, note that vets often are the first to help others in crisis, volunteering in an emergency or supporting a friend in need, but when it comes to themselves, they are reluctant to reach out.
The ads, which include a long version as well as 60- and 30-second spots, ask: "When was the last time you asked for help?"
The veterans all struggle with what appears to be a surprise question.
"It's always tough, right? Um," one replies.
"Yeah. That's a good question. Um," replies another.
"I can't say that I have, I mean, um," another says.
"It was drilled in, service before self," a veteran explains.
According to Heidi Arthur, chief campaign development officer at the Ad Council, the campaign was designed to encourage veterans to give themselves the same consideration they give others.
"Veterans, by nature and training, are deeply committed to helping others -- and that means they often put service before self," Arthur said in a statement. "Through this emotionally resonant new film, we are pleased to continue this critical partnership with the VA to encourage veterans to offer themselves the same empathy and support that they would give to others."
The most recent report on veteran suicide published by the VA showed a decline in 2020 of nearly 10% from a peak in 2018. In 2020, an estimated 6,146 veterans took their own lives – that’s 342 fewer deaths than 2019 and 650 fewer than 2018.
Nonetheless, the suicide rate in 2020 was still 57% higher than in the non-veteran American adult population.
While many factors contribute to suicide, studies show that mental health conditions, loneliness and isolation raise the risk, while awareness of resources, support and therapy can reduce it.
Matthew Miller, director of the VA's Suicide Prevention Program Office, said previous ads in the "Don't Wait. Reach Out" campaign have had an impact on help-seeking behavior among veterans, according to Ad Council data.
"There is a statistically significant difference between veterans who have seen these ads and have then said that they feel more accepting of asking for help and have actually then engaged help-seeking behaviors compared to veterans who have not seen these ads," Miller said in an interview Thursday with Military.com.
Arthur said that the VA's website for resources designed to assist veterans in need, VA.gov/REACH, has received more than 3.5 million visits since the campaign began.
"There, we have a host of resources for veterans organized by the emotional struggles they may have or the life circumstances that may be challenging," Arthur said in an interview Thursday.
The public service announcements were created pro bono by the Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M. According to Arthur, the agency brought in Bigelow, who earned a Best Director Oscar in 2010 for "The Hurt Locker" and was nominated for Best Picture for "Zero Dark Thirty" in 2013.
"It was an honor and a pleasure to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Ad Council on this piece," Bigelow said in a statement. "There was a sincerity and integrity to their approach that made the experience gratifying."
Since 2021, the campaign has garnered more than $40 million in donated media support, meaning that television stations, network and cable television companies, print and online outlets, radio stations and social media have donated airtime to run video, print and online versions of the advertisements.
In the coming month, the ads will appear via Fox, Meta, Reddit, Twitch, YouTube and Yahoo! and will be distributed to the Ad Council's network of 1,850 broadcast TV stations and 9,500 radio stations.
The Ad Council is a nonprofit organization that produces and distributes public service announcements for government organizations, agencies and nonprofit groups. Among its most iconic campaigns are Smokey Bear, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires," "Just Say No" to drugs, and "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk."
Arthur said the "Don't Wait. Reach Out" campaign could have a similar impact on the veteran community.
"We have a long-standing history of addressing some of the toughest issues facing people in our country with messages that truly are designed to shift attitudes and behaviors, and in this case, save lives," Arthur said.
In a statement released with the new ads, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the campaign is meant to spread awareness and hope among veterans.
"There is nothing more important to VA than ending veteran suicide -- and a key part of that effort is encouraging and normalizing the act of reaching out for support," McDonough said in the statement. "Suicide is preventable, and we can all play a role by checking in on each other and encouraging those who are struggling to seek the support they need."
A wide variety of resources are available on the VA's "Don't Wait. Reach Out" website.
Veterans, military personnel or family members experiencing a mental health crisis can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 988 and press 1 for around-the-clock support and intervention services. Text and chat services are available as well by texting 838255 or visiting the Veterans Crisis Line website to chat.
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on X and Threads @patriciakime