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“All of us should pay attention to our emotional well being just like we pay attention to our physical well being.”
Barbara Van Dahlen, named to TIME magazine’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, is the founder and president of Give an Hour.
The organization, founded by Van Dahlen in 2005, has mobilized mental-health professionals to volunteer over 185,000 hours of free counseling for U.S. troops, veterans, and their loved ones.
Anyone from the military community, including parents and siblings of service members and veterans, can find a licensed provider through Give an Hour. The providers include psychiatrists, psychologists, grief and substance abuse counselors, and social workers who offer expertise on everything from treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury to school anxiety.
Currently, the network has more than 7,000 providers.
“It became very clear to me several years ago that if we don’t change the culture of mental health in our nation we will never prevent the 22 suicides a day in our veteran community,” Van Dahlen says. “We won’t prevent the 42,000 suicides in our nation. That involves all men and women — and now, unfortunately, teenagers.”
Van Dahlen only recently began sharing her personal story of mental illness in her family. Her mother was schizophrenic and her father, a World War II Veteran, tried for eight years to navigate the complexity of having his wife in and out of the hospital. Eventually, Van Dahlen’s mother became estranged from the family.
“Unfortunately in my lifetime we didn’t talk about those things in public. And I remember it causing me a great sense of shame and fear.”
Van Dahlen hadn’t seen her mother in 43 years and then recently found her in California.
She has very personal reasons for becoming a licensed clinical psychologist and launching a tireless crusade to break through the mental health stigma in this country.
The success of Give an Hour led Van Dahlen to launch the Campaign to Change Direction — a simple concept to encourage all Americans to learn the Five Signs of emotional suffering and to remove the stigma surrounding these conversations.
The campaign has seen incredible success since its national launch with First Lady, Michelle Obama, just over six months ago.
“How do we change the culture? We realized the really important first step is to level the playing field. Know the 5 signs of emotional suffering; signs that someone is hurting emotionally.”
“We believe that as we elevate the conversation and everyone learns those 5 signs, it naturally leads to an interest in the conversation,” says Van Dahlen.
She knows the pain and heartbreak of watching someone suffer from mental illness and feeling helpless. While this crusade began with a strong focus on our Military, Van Dahlen has expanded her efforts in hopes of providing a framework to elevate the conversation and provide real solutions. She points out that the American Heart Association has done a tremendous job teaching people about the signs of heart attack and stroke. She hopes to do the same with mental illness.
All the while, Van Dahlen, now recognized as a formidable leader in this complex field, hopes to teach her two daughters that what started as a simple idea, has turned into a movement.
“We don’t know what’s in us or what we are capable of until we test it,” Van Dahlen says. “I’m really proud of the example I’m setting for my two daughters. I wanted them to see the power of one.”