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Social Impact Heroes: How Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen of Give an Hour is providing free mental health services to the military and veteran community

…We need to start by being more open about emotional pain, mental health conditions and mental illness. We need to create environments that support emotional health and well-being. We need to explore and adopt new approaches to care and support — because one size doesn’t fit all. We need to value our mental health more than we […]


…We need to start by being more open about emotional pain, mental health conditions and mental illness. We need to create environments that support emotional health and well-being. We need to explore and adopt new approaches to care and support — because one size doesn’t fit all. We need to value our mental health more than we currently do — and push our representatives and government officials to adopt policies and laws that support mental health. We need to teach our kids from an early age — how to talk about their internal experience and how to care for their own emotional health. And we need to invest in research to find new treatments for some of the most painful and difficult conditions to treat. If we do some or all of these things — we will change our culture, save money and most importantly, save lives.


I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen. Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., named to TIME’s 2012 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, is the president of Give an Hour™, a nonprofit she founded in 2005 to provide free mental health services to the military and veteran community. A licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, D.C., she received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Maryland in 1991, her M.A. in clinical psychology from the University of Maryland in 1987, and her B.A., summa cum laude, from California State College in 1982. Give an Hour’s nearly 7,000 mental health professionals have given more than 265,000 hours of care valued at over $26M. In 2017, Give an Hour began expanding its model — and is now providing free care to other populations in need. Give an Hour also leads the Campaign to Change Direction®, a global initiative focused on changing the culture of mental health, which launched in March 2015 with former US First Lady Michelle Obama as keynote speaker. Dr. Van Dahlen has received numerous awards, including the American Psychological Association’s Presidential Citation and the Richard Cornuelle Award for Social Entrepreneurship of the Manhattan Institute in 2013. In 2014 she was honored by the Chief of Staff of the United States Army as an outstanding civilian who has made significant voluntary contributions to our military and the United States Army. She also received the 2016 American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Lifesavers Gala Public Service Award and was appointed in January 2016 to serve on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, & Nutrition.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

My father was a first-generation American who lied about his age to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor. He experienced combat, was injured and saw horrible things during the war. He came home with what we would now call post-traumatic stress — though no one knew what it was at the time. After the war, my dad met and married my mom — and they had my three older brothers. My dad wanted to give us a better life — and so he moved his young family from the inner city of Los Angeles to a very rural part of California. Unfortunately, moving my mom soon after I was born triggered a psychotic break and she was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. My dad tried for 8 years to get help for her — but there wasn’t much available in rural California at the time. They eventually divorced and I didn’t see her again for over 40 years. From very early in life, I wanted to understand mental health challenges — and I wanted to help people who were suffering.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

We humans don’t like to be vulnerable — and from an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Those who were weak or fragile — physically or mentally — were pushed out of the cave or left behind when the tribe moved on. While we have come a long way from the days when we whispered about “cancer”, we still treat mental health conditions and mental illness as if they signify weakness or damage. Given that one in five of us has a diagnosable mental health condition, it should be clear that mental health challenges — like physical health challenges — are part of the human condition.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

In 2015 we launched the Campaign to Change Direction which focuses on changing the culture of mental health. Change Direction is a public health initiative — it is about and for everyone. Just as we all know the signs of a heart attack — at least enough to recognize that someone needs help — we want everyone to recognize the signs that tell us someone is in emotional pain and needs our help. Our focus is not so much on removing stigma — but on creating a basic language that allows us to recognize emotional pain. And for those folks who don’t know the five signs, they are: 1) change in personality 2) agitation 3) withdrawal 4) lack of personal care and 5) hopelessness. Of course these aren’t the only signs that indicate that someone is in emotional pain — but if you see these signs in yourself or someone you love, something is going on and it is time to act.

This March, I launched a new podcast called Inner Space, which aims to expand our understanding of emotional well-being. On the show, I interview public figures in entertainment, sports, business, religion, and politics to help listeners understand their own mental health, develop emotionally healthy habits, recognize the signs of emotional pain in themselves and loved ones, and find ways to care for those who are suffering.

And our call to action — like a good public health message — is also very basic. If you see that someone is in emotional pain, reach out, show compassion, offer to help.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

There is always a story behind every initiative isn’t there!

We were working closely with the Obama administration in 2012 at the time of the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Give an Hour, the non profit organization that I founded in 2005 was well regarded — and we worked closely with the Obama administration through the First Lady and Dr Biden’s Joining Forces effort to support military families. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, Vice President Biden’s office began looking at mental health issues — how they contributed to these kinds of traumas. The Vice President’s office reached out to me and asked if I could take a look at the issue. Were we missing something in terms of programs or efforts?

I put a steering committee together to examine the issue and we quickly agreed that in order to ensure that those in need seek and receive the care they deserve, we must change the culture around mental health. We need to encourage people to think about, talk about and address mental health and emotional well-being the way we do physical health and physical well-being. We decided this public health effort by creating a common language to describe emotional pain — which led to the development of the Five Signs of Emotional Suffering. Soon after we launched the Five Signs, we launched the Healthy Habits of Emotional Well-being to encourage people to take care of their emotional health. Since launching Change Direction, we are now proudly working with over 600 partner organizations — located across the country and around the world.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

We need to start by being more open about emotional pain, mental health conditions and mental illness. We need to create environments that support emotional health and well-being. We need to explore and adopt new approaches to care and support — because one size doesn’t fit all. We need to value our mental health more than we currently do — and push our representatives and government officials to adopt policies and laws that support mental health. We need to teach our kids from an early age — how to talk about their internal experience and how to care for their own emotional health. And we need to invest in research to find new treatments for some of the most painful and difficult conditions to treat. If we do some or all of these things — we will change our culture, save money and most importantly, save lives.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

When I was growing up, I was embarrassed about my mom — I never talked about her. I also experienced other painful traumas during my childhood — I lost my brother to a drowning accident when I was 15. I also lost a stepsister and a stepbrother — one in a car accident the other to an illness. I didn’t talk about these childhood experiences to friends — because I was afraid that they would be overwhelmed and leave me. As I was becoming a psychologist, I decided that I wanted to work on myself — to understand my own pain before I tried to help others with theirs. Therapy was a valuable — though at times very painful — experience for me. I learned so much about how the trauma and loss I had experienced growing up still affected me. I learned how to be a better person in general and how to be a better healer myself. I am a big believer in therapy and counseling. I wish we had enough mental health professionals for everyone to have easy access to a counselor or therapist.

I am a big believer in being reflective and I practice mindfulness. I am not sure if this is one or two strategies but they actually work together nicely.

In order to be reflective — you have to choose to look at yourself — even if sometimes you would rather not! If I am snappy with someone — or if I start feeling discouraged about my own shortcomings, I am pretty quick to have a chat with myself — to process what’s going on. This practice is extremely helpful to me and has contributed to my self-confidence. Also, I discovered mindfulness and meditation over 20 years ago and while I don’t always practice meditation as much as I might like to, I love the experience when I do. Sometimes I will mediate for 5 or 10 minutes, just to hit pause and turn inward. And I am very conscientious about being mindful — working hard to remain in the moment as much as possible every day. The practice of being mindful helps keep me balanced. It allows me to make adjustments behaviorally if I need to — and it helps me keep perspective and manage the stress that is part of everyone’s life.

I am very close to my husband and two daughters. They are such amazing, loving people. They are my main source of support — along with a huge collection of wonderful friends and colleagues. I love sharing my life with the people I love — even if that sharing is sometimes hard or painful. Ultimately, finding people we trust in life is the greatest gift we could ever receive. I know that no matter what happens to me, I can survive because of the love and support that is wrapped around me.

I swim. I used to run before that. As I got older, my knees began to let me know that running was not going to continue to work for me — so I switched to swimming. I don’t love getting into the pool — because I hate being cold. But I love the feeling that I have once I actually start swimming. I listen to music — which makes all of the difference in the world. Being physically active is hugely important to me — and always has been. If I can’t swim because I am traveling, I ride a stationary bike in the hotel, and if I can’t ride, I walk. I feel better emotionally when I take care of my body physically — through exercise and eating well.

I love to read — novels especially. And I love good movies and good music. Basically, I love stories and storytelling. I have always loved disappearing into a good story — and I include music here because for me, music is all about telling a story. When I was little, stories helped me escape from the pain that was so much a part of my childhood. My brother — who died when I was in high school — had a very powerful influence on me. We were very close. He was 5 years older than me and I remember following him around — always wanting to be like him. Luckily for me, he didn’t mind at all and he shared his favorite books, movies and music with me. After he died, the stories he shared with me gave me great comfort. I love stories that inspire me — and ones that touch me or make me think…And there is nothing better than putting on my favorite music — really loud — in the car, the pool, at home. Good books, movies and music — make me happy and keep me centered.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I have always been most inspired by the people I have had the honor to work with across my career.

When I was a young psychologist — I worked with adults, teens, children and families who regularly impressed and inspired me. Some of the people I saw were going through painful losses — others were grappling with trauma that had occurred long ago. Many were trying to make sense of the anxiety or depression that seemed to come out of the blue. And the children and teens I got to spend time with — they were just trying to be regular kids. They wanted to have friends and they wanted to be happy. Those adults and kids who chose to give therapy a try, worked very hard on themselves. They shared their stories and their pain with me — so that together we could create a safe space. It was amazing and humbling work. Being part of another person’s healing is an awe-inspiring experience.

And since founding Give an Hour in 2005, I have had the privilege of working with service members, veterans and their families — and the organizations that support them. I have been incredibly inspired by the courage, sacrifice and commitment of the men and women who serve our country. Not only do they pledge to sacrifice their lives if necessary in order to protect and defend us, they also look out for each other in a way that is truly extraordinary.

And finally, in March I launched a podcast series called Inner Space. So far, I have interviewed over 30 people for our first season and once again I find myself being inspired by the people I have the good fortune to work with. My guests have shared the challenges they have faced and overcome, the lessons they have learned — the pain they have endured. And by sharing their stories, they will inspire listeners who are dealing with challenges and pain of their own.

I feel very fortunate to have had these opportunities and to have been touched by so many amazing lives.

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