Filmmaker Ellen Goosenberg Kent Encourages Us Stay Hopeful
Why did you want to make a documentary about the Veterans Crisis Line? What do you hope to accomplish through this film?
The suicide rate among veterans is staggering and beyond heartbreaking. About 22 veterans kill themselves every day, and this has been going on for years. It used to be that the suicide rate for civilian men the same age was higher than the rate for veterans, but that’s changed. We had done the documentary ‘Wartorn’ in 2011 and looked at the devastating effects of war and post-traumatic stress on service members throughout history, but we felt compelled to revisit the subject of suicide because it’s preventable. The best way to survive the psychological wounds of war or to help someone you love who is suffering is to reach out. And that’s the message of this film.
Over the course of 12 years and two wars, suicide among active-duty troops has risen steadily, as has suicide among veterans. We want to raise awareness about suicide and prevention, to encourage military members to seek help without the fear of stigma or the concern that they won’t be able to work if employers find out they’ve struggled. We want family members, friends and anyone who cares about veterans to encourage them not to go it alone, not to give up hope.
How long did it take to film Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1?
We filmed at the hotline over the course of about nine months and taped scores of calls.
How did you select which responders would appear in the film?
The number of responders at the Crisis Line grew from about 100 to 250 during the time we were there. These are superbly well-trained people, deeply compassionate and about a quarter of them are veterans themselves. In the first few days of filming, we were lucky to meet a few responders and rescue coordinators who brought something extra to the table, some personal connection to the plight of veterans and a passion for their work that was palpable. Over time, they took some phone calls that we felt reflected the range and degree of anguish we were hearing about over and over again. It was a hard choice, though, because there were so many compelling calls to choose from and so many effective styles of handling those calls.
Crisis Line responders have an incredibly difficult and emotionally-taxing job. What drives them?
It’s clearly a job that many people could not handle day in and day out, and the people who have been doing it for several years are driven by a mission to do service. Some have been suicidal themselves or had family members return home with post-traumatic stress. Having survived these personal crises, they feel a responsibility to extend a hand to others. They can refer veterans to local suicide prevention coordinators near where they live, who can help them cut through red tape to get therapy or find support services within and outside the VA. Sometimes that can be a lifesaver. But the workers at the Crisis Line understand that they’re not in a position to do therapy themselves, and they’re not responsible for what the veteran ultimately chooses to do or for the failures of the system in responding to a veteran’s needs. They achieve a level of loving detachment that is rare.
Did you learn anything new or surprising over the course of this project?
Preventing suicide and treating something complicated like PTSD are two different things. The responders taught us that helping delay someone’s impulse to end his life and find or learn strategies for staying alive is the first step. After that, the vet can eventually benefit from treatment for the trauma he or she has experienced. The psychological or moral injury that happens in war and the sense of hopelessness and moral confusion many veterans feel is life-threatening and nearly impossible to handle alone. Over time, veterans can regain the ability to create and find meaning in their lives. They can find useful roles in civilian life and reconstruct their identities. But they need time and reasons for living, and crisis line responders buy them that time and help them identify those reasons.
Though women generally do not see combat, do responders ever field calls from female vets? What’s the gender ratio?
Female vets do see combat, and we captured some of those conversations. Some female veterans were dealing with military sexual trauma; some have post-traumatic stress from what they’ve seen in battle or support units where they work. Some return home to children who feel abandoned or husbands who have cheated. Many female callers have developed substance abuse problems that they describe as a way of self-medicating their emotional pain. The Crisis Line doesn’t keep statistics on male versus female veterans who call, but male and female vets share many of the same kinds of adjustment problems, family disintegration, emotional detachment, lack of work [issues], and a feeling that no one truly understands what they have been through.
What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
The most obvious challenge is that we couldn’t hear the callers. They are never taped by the hotline to protect their anonymity, and we certainly had no access to their side of the conversation. How do you convey the anguish, the suffering, and the details of the veterans’ experiences without hearing about them first-hand, or seeing their faces? For this, we had to rely on the responders’ compassionate reactions.
Another challenge is the lack of resolution, especially in situations where calls end abruptly or it’s clear that the veteran has a long road ahead, a difficult bureaucracy to navigate and other immediate crises in their lives. Any one of those things alone is daunting and you want to reach across that phone line and do something. The take-away for me — and I hope for viewers — is that each one of us can do something to help a veteran, and it’s no small thing to demonstrate caring to someone who feels useless, mission-less, and lost. It can be a gesture that keeps someone alive for another day, long enough to consider their reasons for living.