Research Brief
National Veterans Awareness Ride members hold U.S. flags to show support during the National Vietnam War Veterans Day observance

Photo by Linda Lambiotte/ASC Public Affairs

The materials designed to raise awareness of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA's) Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) constitute one of four federally funded mental health public awareness campaigns that RAND is evaluating as part of a cross-agency evaluation (funded by the Department of Defense Psychological Health Center of Excellence) aimed at improving the mental health of service members and veterans. A cross-agency evaluation report describes the campaigns' overlapping and unique scope and content, as well as cross-campaign dissemination efforts. Based on the cross-agency evaluation report, this brief about VCL awareness materials is one in a series examining the individual campaigns' messages, the consistency of messaging in their materials, and the tools they use to deliver content to their audiences. Because the results presented here are from an evaluation of the four campaigns' collective reach and impact, they are not intended to serve as a full and comprehensive evaluation of the VCL campaign. It should also be noted that this evaluation focuses on the materials designed to raise awareness of VCL and not on the functioning or operations of the crisis line itself.

Findings

The following are some key findings about the VCL awareness campaign from the RAND research team's content analysis of campaign materials, an analysis of campaign-collected communication metrics, and a panel of experts who assessed the extent to which the VCL campaign's content and design align with best practices for mental health public awareness campaigns.

Veterans Crisis Line Campaign Content Generally Reflects the Target Audience of Veterans and Their Friends and Families

Of the 201 pieces of VCL content reviewed, 75 percent was tailored to the friends and families of veterans, and 14 percent was tailored to veterans themselves. Nearly all materials focused on communicating treatment options and resources, providing examples of how friends and family can help, or connecting individuals to the crisis line.

The Veterans Crisis Line Campaign Stays on Message

Virtually all VCL campaign content clearly communicated its stated messages. In addition, the campaign content supported messages that corresponded with shared goals across the campaigns being evaluated (for example, offering resources for those in crisis).

The Veterans Crisis Line Campaign Uses Best Practices

VCL campaign materials generally adhered to best practices. Experts also indicated that the communication channels used by VCL were appropriate for its target audience, messengers were credible, and the campaign used evidence-based messages.

Veterans Crisis Line Campaign Materials Do Not Identify Information Sources

Despite relying on published research findings and internal experts to develop the materials, VCL materials intentionally omit source information. The campaign staff strategically minimized citations to avoid appearing overly technical and to appeal to the target audience. However, this design choice could make it difficult for users to judge credibility or seek out more information.

115%

increase in website sessions from 2012 to 2015

Website Traffic Is Climbing

In 2015, the VCL website played host to more than 930,000 sessions. Although the other campaigns in the evaluation had more web traffic, VCL saw the greatest increase in website sessions since 2012, at 155 percent. VCL was the only campaign to consistently increase its reach every year.

Campaigns Collectively Do Little Cross-Referencing and Cross-Linking

The other campaigns in the evaluation all cross-reference or link to VCL, but VCL links to only one of the other campaigns. There might be other opportunities for the four campaigns' websites to link to each other as resources.

9.5 million

pieces of VCL campaign material were distributed

The Veterans Crisis Line's Campaign Outreach Through Events Is Unparalleled Among the Campaigns

VCL conducts much of its outreach through conferences and events. The campaign had a presence at 207 events—compared with 32 for the campaign with the second-most-active calendar—and distributed nearly 9.5 million pieces of campaign material.

The Veterans Crisis Line Campaign Has Little Presence on Social Media

The VCL campaign lacks an active Facebook page, Twitter handle, or YouTube channel.

The Veterans Crisis Line Campaign's Public Service Announcements Reach a Relatively Small Audience

VCL aired 128,948 radio PSAs and 43,616 television PSAs, for a combined 981 million impressions (the number of audience members who might have been exposed to the PSAs). That is about 2 percent of the 42.9 billion impressions for the four campaigns combined.

Marine Corps Capt. Kimberly Sonntag holds the American flag out the back of a CH-47 Chinook Helicopter

Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/U.S. Department of Defense

Recommendations

The experts recommended several approaches to improving VCL's campaign materials. See the full report for a complete list of recommendations based on the cross-campaign analysis.

  • Despite many campaign materials targeting family and friends of veterans, experts recommended strengthening materials for these target audiences by adding more content on how family and friends can help identify signs of crisis and facilitate access to VCL.
  • Review materials and determine whether source information should be provided.
  • Consider cross-referencing other campaigns more in materials and online.
  • Consider developing a more robust social media presence to better engage the audience.
  • Consider adjusting promotional materials to show users chatting, texting, or calling VCL and the associated benefits of doing so.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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