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Most adults in the United States clearly remember the solitary tear that rolled down the face of Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American featured in the Keep America Beautiful public service announcement (PSA) throughout the 1970s and '80s that encouraged us not to litter. More importantly, however, as a result of this PSA, they remember that they stopped littering.
Despite the fact that, every 11 minutes someone dies by suicide, and the fact that many of those individuals are veterans, few people have the same recollection of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)’s “Be There for Veterans” PSA, which has aired on-and-off since 2017.
Although this PSA is a step in the right direction, the VA can, and must, do more to reach veterans who are at-risk for suicide. In the same way that the Keep America Beautiful PSA encouraged us not to litter, an effective VA PSA can in fact encourage us to be there for veterans and prevent suicide.
The VA has declared suicide prevention one of its top priorities over the last several years. However, despite this proclamation, it was discovered in December 2018 that VA failed to spend all but $57,000, or less than one percent, of its $6.2 million budget for suicide prevention outreach.
As stated by the GAO, “VA has stated that preventing veteran suicide is its top clinical priority, yet [the Veterans Health Administration’s] lack of leadership attention to its suicide prevention media outreach campaign in recent years has resulted in less outreach to veterans.”
In response, VA re-issued a version of its "Be There" PSA. Unfortunately, this PSA misses the mark in terms of its content, duration, and effectiveness.
PSAs are advertisements designed to create awareness regarding areas of public interest. Historically, they’ve long been intertwined with veterans in the military. For example, at the start of World War II, PSAs reminded listeners that “loose lips sink ships” in furtherance of support for the US and its war efforts. Throughout the last several decades, PSAs have been credited with helping to instigate a vast array of cultural changes on subjects ranging from pollution to drunk driving.
PSAs, when utilized properly, are an extraordinarily effective way to reach a broad audience. This is particularly important in the context of veteran suicides, given the fact that 14 out of 20 veterans who take their lives daily do not have any contact with the VA health-care system.
Currently, VA has very little content on its web page dedicated to PSAs. The available content is not only lacking in terms of depth, but also lacks in emotional connectiveness and ability to spark a conversation about this important topic. Sadly, the “Be There” PSA released in 2019 is merely a shortened version (a mere 15 seconds) of an ad previously released in 2017 (which was originally one minute and 18 seconds).
This is problematic because, according to Think With Google, messages that are longer in duration have a better effect and outcome on intended audiences. In an analysis of ads that ranged from 15 seconds to over two minutes, the study concluded that to “mov[e] beyond simple awareness, a longer story may be necessary to persuade people to change how they think.”
In the context of preventing veteran suicide, creating content of appropriate duration is essential in achieving the goal of increasing citizens’ desire to become involved, take action against the problem, and more thoroughly educate themselves about possible solutions.
Although there is no "one size fits all" model for a PSA, ability to engage viewers is a priority for all successful campaigns. As concluded in the Think With Google study, the longer ads “were both watched more than the 15-second ad, with the 30-second ad the least skipped, and the 15-second ad the most skipped.”
To this end, VA can learn from our neighbor to the north, Canada. For the past four years, the veterans’ suicide rate has declined in Canada, in part due to increasing awareness of services, support programs, and awareness through PSAs.
For example, Veterans Affairs Canada has an easy to browse website with mental health resources on their main page, including various options on how to contact someone when an emergency exists. This demonstrates an openness, willingness and dedication toward not only promoting the topic publicly, but also to educate the public about this lower suicide rate annually.
Further, despite having a smaller active duty, reserve and veteran population, as well as a significantly smaller operating budget, Canada’s National Defence Video Gallery contains a number of PSAs, most of which are 60 seconds long, and is releasing them at the rate of one per month. This demonstrates both an affirmative action and urgency to get messages out to engage the public so mental health is destigmatized leading to better outcomes.
In the age of the internet, social media, YouTube and other online sharing apps, reaching audiences via a PSA is not as simple and straightforward as it once was. However, it does create an opportunity to reach broader audiences than ever before.
Most importantly, effective PSAs create conversation, spark an emotional connection and encourage sharing of that message. At a time when the military-civilian divide is at an all-time high, conversation that provokes awareness and an emotional connection in place of a personal one can go a long way toward preventing suicide.
As Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration recently testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, “VA alone cannot end Veteran suicide.” At-risk veterans, and the VA, need the help of our communities, and our communities can become more aware and invested in solutions through a successful PSA campaign.
Without effective outreach, we won’t be able to “Be There for Veterans” in the same way we aimed to Keep America Beautiful. Surely, Iron Eyed Cody would shed more than just one tear if he observed the extent of the veterans’ suicide epidemic today.
Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). Follow her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.
Andrew Vernon is a principal at Andrew Vernon and Associates, which is an organization dedicated toward advocacy and consulting services for Veteran and Military Affairs. He was a career employee at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for seven years. Follow him on Twitter: @Vernon_AndrewJ.