When Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist in the Washington, DC, area, was on vacation in summer 2005, she was reading “Nonprofit Kit for Dummies.” Fast-forward to 2010 and she has almost 5,000 volunteers for Give an Hour, a nonprofit she launched in September 2005.
The group’s mission is to develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic mental health conditions. Currently, the organization is especially dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of the troops and families affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense are doing a ton to reach out to help these folks, and sometimes I get asked why Give an Hour is here – why can’t we let the government handle this?” Van Dahlen said. “Well, my answer is that these are our citizens, our neighbors, our family members, our friends and coworkers.
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“And even if the VA and Department of Defense had tons of money to throw at this issue, this is something that we as a country need to respond to and this is a way mental health professionals can step up and give a little time. If we can bridge the gap, make some awareness about military culture and civilian culture and teaching each other who they are, then we’re going to go a long way toward undoing the damage done by Vietnam.”
The 4,600 mental health professionals who volunteer for Give an Hour must donate an hour a week for a year at minimum. Van Dahlen and volunteers ensure that mental health professionals are licensed; that way, she knows that they must go through training and meet state standards.
She has a goal of having 40,000 mental health professionals volunteer with Give an Hour by 2015.
Van Dahlen said that as she watched the war in Iraq unfold five years ago, she thought we would be better prepared to handle mental health concerns of the soldiers and their families. That’s part of what led her to launch Give an Hour.
Also, her father was a World War II veteran, and Van Dahlen said she learned to respect integrity, honor and service. And as a mental health provider, she was trained to learn how to treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from Vietnam.
Talking about dealing with veterans from the war with Iraq, she said, “It was clear that we were not ready” to handle all of their mental health concerns.
Give an Hour also recently expanded its free mental health services to all military personnel and civilian aid workers and their families serving in Haiti. Volunteers are giving military workers and civilian aid workers “the same kind of love” that they would to others contacting Give an Hour, Van Dahlen said.
It’s been a “long, complicated, ongoing process” to get the program to evolve to its current form, Van Dahlen said.
She has reached out to many national mental health groups and professionals to get other mental health professionals on board. Also, she has placed public service announcements in Time magazine and USA Today and on the radio.
Van Dahlen wrote on Give an Hour’s web site that because of the tremendous number of people affected by the wars, that makes it practically impossible for the military to keep up with the mental health needs of veterans and their families.
“We define ‘family’ broadly,” she said. Anyone in service since 9/11 can type in a zip code to look for a volunteer mental health provider.
Those seeking help from Give an Hour often get direct counseling, but the group also provides telephone support and is moving toward “tele-health,” or providing help via web cameras. People also send notes to Van Dahlen by email.
In addition, Van Dahlen also hopes to soon set up a group run like Give an Hour, but that offers volunteer yoga trainers to help veterans and families combat stress. She hopes to set up a group within a year.
In the meantime, Van Dahlen said that there’s a big stigma to military personnel seeking mental health treatment. “It’s a huge concern,” she said. She added, “Our society is very skittish and very uncomfortable with the notion that certain things affect us psychologically and emotionally, and they do.” She said she was going to write a column about Haiti and explain how military workers and relief workers going there are all likely to return to the States with some type of post-traumatic reaction. “This is a very normal reaction,” she said. “So, the concern that military folks have has to do with our collective concern as a society about mental health care.”
On top of that, many military personnel worry that they’ll lose their jobs if they seek mental health help, she said.
Van Dahlen said that the Department of Defense is putting forth a “tremendous” amount of work to try to destigmatize mental health topics and to get out the message that getting treated for mental health won’t jeopardize military employees’ jobs, but she said, “It’s going to take a long time before that message is really thoroughly believed” by all levels of the military.
Van Dahlen and Give an Hour also reach out to the commanding officers of returning troops to help make soldiers aware of her services.
In addition to running Give an Hour, Van Dahlen also does consulting work for various veterans’ organizations and talks in communities about Give an Hour.
Anyone who wants to locate Give an Hour providers can log on to the Give an Hour web site at www.giveanhour.org and use a zip code finder to locate a provider. Also, anyone who wants to learn more about volunteering for Give an Hour can email [email protected] or log on at www.giveanhour.org, go to “providers” and fill out a form.