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Q&A: Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour

Q&A: Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour

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Give an Hour is a nonprofit that connects volunteer mental health professionals with military service members, veterans and their families.

As many as 30 percent of military service members return from war zones with post-traumatic stress disorder, while countless more face other mental health issues. But the stigma that still surrounds mental health can make it difficult for many to find treatment, said psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen. That's part of the reason why, in 2005, she founded Give an Hour, a nonprofit that connects volunteer mental health professionals with service members, veterans and their families. Though the organization focuses on mental health care, other volunteers, such as writers, are welcome. "People who care about this population can join us," Van Dahlen said. "We're happy to put them to work."

I spoke last week with Van Dahlen, who was this year named one of TIME's 100 most influential people, about the void Give an Hour fills, how Craigslist played a role in her organization's success and what the nonprofit's future holds. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You're a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of children. What prompted your shift in focus to U.S. troops and veterans?

I myself am the child of a veteran. My father served in World War II. That had a huge effect on my life. I was very close to my dad. He passed away in 1986. He served in the Pacific. I grew up with a very healthy respect for the military. He served long before I was born, but I grew up hearing stories about his service. He never talked about the difficult or dark. He was injured. I'm sure he saw a lot of horrible things. He didn't talk about that, but he talked about his experience.

As a mental health professional, I grew up seeing people in mental health clinics who were affected by the Vietnam War. Often it was families, children. Many of those Vietnam veterans, 20 or 30 years later were still fighting the same war in their own minds. It affected their families. As a child psychologist, I would immediately focus on the impact of the war on the children. If we didn't take care of the service members and offer services for their families, we'd have another generation of kids who were suffering as a result.

Why was an organization like Give an Hour needed? What void were you trying to fill?

Watching what was happening in 2004, it was clear the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs were much more focused on the mental health consequences of war. But what the stories were telling us was that a huge number of men and now women were being exposed to horrific things. It was nothing we wouldn't have expected, but it was concerning in that I was hearing stories of men and women coming home and struggling with mental health issues, losing their families, living out of cars already. Even though the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs were doing more, they can't be everywhere. I felt like we in the mental health community needed to step up, be prepared and offer our services.

There's an issue in our country about mental health in general. It's not just in the military. But we as a nation don't do very well in responding to mental health needs within ourselves and our families. We needed options. It needed to be as easy as possible for those who served to get the help they needed, whether it was in Department of Defense services or in their community. The idea of harnessing an entire profession that has the skills needed to respond was absolutely what we needed to do. We wanted to reach those who are serving and those who are struggling and make it easy for them to prevent a whole generation of suffering.

How does Give an Hour work?

When I envisioned Give an Hour, I talked to Craig Newmark many times. It was Craigslist that gave me the idea of how to create this. At the time, I was a single mom. I used Craigslist to get childcare workers. It was amazing. When I was thinking about this notion, I thought if we get mental health professionals to donate an hour a week to offer free mental health care, how am I going to connect them to the people in need? The idea was to create what in essence is a clearinghouse.

We now have more than 6,500 mental health professionals all over the country. We reach out to them in a number of ways, through mental health associations at the national, state and local levels. It takes them about two minutes to sign up. They put in their license information and details about where they're located and their area of expertise. Give an Hour staff verifies that they're licensed. Veterans, military personnel and family members go to our website. We don't track any information on the military visitors side. People who come to Give an Hour to find a provider don't have to register or give any information. We wanted it to be confidential and anonymous. They just put in their zip code and get a list of providers in their community. If they want more help, if they're not sure what they need, they can contact Give an Hour staff. We'll help connect them.

We also give providers the opportunity to give their hour by giving talks in their community or participating at reintegration events. The innovation here is harnessing volunteers in a way that works for them and makes it easy for them to give and easy for those who are in need to get those services.

I assumed that Give an Hour involved mostly virtual contact, for instance over the phone or via Skype. But it sounds like most of the communication between providers and patients is in person.

We humans value person-to-person contact. Over time, one of the ways we're poised to grow will be in telehealth. It will be an option for folks to use their computers to do person-to-person communication via webcast because the technology allows it now. It's secure and confidential. We offer phone support now. But most of the time, it's still the way it's always been. Someone comes in, they sit down and they begin to talk about what's going on.

How many patients has Give an Hour served?

Because it's all anonymous and confidential, we don't track those who come. We track the hours that our providers report they give. We do it that way because many of our providers are still seeing one individual or a family or a couple, but a lot of them are out in communities where they'll provide their hours to a room full of service members who are back for reintegration events or at a workshop or a talk.

We only report the actual hours given, even though we know far more have been given. We survey our providers once a quarter. About 10 to 15 percent answer the surveys. It tells us that the number of hours reported is a fraction of what's actually been given. To date, we've given about 74,000 hours, the equivalent of about $7.4 million worth of time. About 10 percent of our providers have reported that, so we've probably given about two or three times that. Eventually, we might figure out other ways to track the data.

We know a lot about those hours. About equal numbers of hours are given to veterans and service members and their families. Those numbers have gone up dramatically in the past six months. Clearly, the word is getting out about the services.

You mentioned the innovation here is making it easy for service members, veterans and families to connect with mental health providers. But what are the primary challenges you face in your work?

I didn't set out to be innovative. I set out to meet the needs that I saw. Now I understand that what we created is quite innovative. It's one of the few efforts that has harnessed skills-based volunteers. Whatever our craft is, we tend to take it for granted. When someone asks us to give it in a different way or to a unique population or a group that needs it, it's satisfying. Our mental health providers have told us how much they value that. And using this clearinghouse to connect people to volunteers is different. We're a virtual organization. We don't have an office building. People fit their hours into their schedule and we're family-focused. We can be creative in offering opportunities for women.

The challenge we face now is a good challenge: being able to do all that we're asked to do. We've been recognized as having this incredible resource. Many groups are asking us to help, which we're proud to do. How do we do that? We're pretty much stretched all the time in order to meet the needs. The good news is there's that desire.

On the other side, the issue is getting the word out and making sure service members, veterans and their families know we're here. It's fighting the stigma and making sure that we continue to have these conversations. We know experiencing life in the military is stressful and can cause families to struggle. It can trigger significant mental health challenges and consequences. No one should feel embarrassed or ashamed. This is normal human behavior. Our job is to figure out how to provide what people need to heal.

Do you think you might ever expand Give an Hour to another group in need of mental health services, like the homeless?

You're right on the cutting edge of where we're heading. Although the need that I saw was the military population, from the beginning the idea was to create this model and eventually focus this capability on other issues in our society. We're right now looking at other possible areas of focus, partly because we see how amazing this model is. People want to give. If we figure out how to make it possible for them to give what's unique and skill-based, they'll do it. We have so many issues, both acute and chronic, in our society.

Photo: Barbara Van Dahlen

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure