The day before his 22nd birthday, Garrett Smith had had enough. The college student swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and hanged himself in his closet, ending a long struggle with depression and forcing his parents, former senator Gordon Smith and his wife, Sharon, to consider whether they had done enough to coax their son out of depression.
A decade and one youth suicide-prevention bill later, his father, now head of the National Association of Broadcasters, is launching a multimillion-dollar television and radio campaign to encourage young adults to open up about their experiences with mental illness.
“History is a hard teacher. I suspect we were like many typical American parents who viewed issues of the mind only in the abstract,” Smith, a former senator from Oregon, said. “If only then we had known what we know now, our son would still be living.”
The public service ad (PSA) campaign, OK2TALK, features the stories of young adults struggling with mental illness. It debuted Thursday in 210 television markets and radio stations nationwide. The stories include television and radio ads in English and Spanish.
VIDEO: OK2TALK PSA on YouTube
About 20% of adolescents have mental health disorders that can be diagnosed, and suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults. The number of children diagnosed with mental illness has also been rising for more than a decade, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June.
A 2013 survey of young adults 18 to 24 and parents of children 12 to 17 found that two-thirds of young adults and parents had personal experience with mental health problems. More than one-fourth of these young adults and one in six of these parents admitted they avoid talking about mental illness, the NAB survey found.
Viewers will be directed to a Tumblr-based community, OK2TALK.org, where young adults can share their stories of recovery on a safe, moderated social-media platform. The site will also provide resources on spotting mental illness and coping with it.
NAB, a major advocacy association for America’s broadcasters, announced the campaign at the White House last month as part of the National Conference on Mental Health. The organization did not disclose the campaign’s cost, but said it was “substantial” and in the “multimillions.”
It’s not clear if the benefit of greater awareness outweighs the cost of public-service campaigns that attempt to shift behavior, especially if the campaign targets issues around the broad umbrella of mental health, said Angela Aguayo, assistant professor of cinema and digital culture at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
“Mental health issues are inherently complicated and case specific. The reasons why people don’t seek help are even more complex,” Aguayo said.
Existing research shows that PSAs can help debunk stereotypes and reduce stigmatization, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
But it can depend on what a campaign is trying to sell. Mental health awareness campaigns can be effective because they’re examples of “consciousness-raising, not a case of trying to convince people not to do something they want to do,” said Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
In hindsight, Smith says simple tips to spot the signs of mental illness could have helped keep his son alive. The former Republican senator helped sign into the law the nation’s first youth suicide-prevention bill in 2004, the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act.
“Treatment is valuable, accessible and effective. We would simply wish that, as parents, that more parents would be as mindful of mental health as they are to any other kind of physical illness.”