When Ben Foster signed on for the critically acclaimed Leave No Trace, he turned to Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen for help in making the film’s central storyline about mental health as authentic as possible.
The two had already collaborated when Foster, 38, starred in Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away” music video, which aimed to raise awareness for mental health prevention. This time, Foster relied on her again when the role called for him to play a veteran struggling with PTSD and mental illness upon his return home.
It was important to Foster for the story to be authentic in order to help reduce the stigma around mental illness.
“Some wounds and illnesses are invisible to the naked eye,” Foster tells PEOPLE. “By sharing stories about our own unique experiences, we can allow a safe identification and hopefully a conversation. Any time we look past a bias or perceived stigma, for ourselves or others, we strengthen our own humanity. Practicing empathy is the first mighty step towards healing.”
As a clinical psychologist who often treats troops struggling to overcome the mental strife of war, Van Dahlen collaborated with Foster on his performance and the way the story was told.
“Barbara is one of most beautiful compassionate humans I’ve have the good fortune of meeting,” Foster says. “She helped guide us towards a more authentic expression of how depression manifests itself and affects loved ones, while at the same time suggesting hope and ways to connect.”
Van Dahlen was uniquely qualified to help thanks to her Give an Hour organization — an initiative formed to give help to veterans who may not afford it. The program sees psychologists donate an hour of their practice free for those who need help, all in the hopes that veterans are given the tools they need to thrive once they come back home.
“War is very traumatic and we should anticipate,” Van Dahlen tells PEOPLE of her program. “That’s really what I was doing. If I’m sitting here in my office and I would give an hour of time to see a veteran or service member or family member, I knew there would be other professionals out there.”
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The organization was founded in 2005 and has since gone on to give over 250,000 hours from over 7,000 professionals. She hopes Leave No Trace helps anyone struggling find the resolve to get help through its authenticity.
“What’s really important is to tell authentic, accurate stories,” she says. “We’ve had way too many in our history of sensationalized stories so, sadly, people think all veterans are broken, they all have post-traumatic stress. And that’s not true. Leave No Trace is such a beautiful and compelling film about a veteran and his love for his daughter but his inability to function comfortable in society. And Ben really is such a student and was meticulous about getting it right and being authentic. That’s what makes a difference — not just any old story about veterans and the military, but accurate. And that’s what this story is about.”