Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, Founder and President of Give an Hour, Joins Denver Frederick

Denver: Approximately one in five adults in the US, nearly 20%, experiences mental illness in a given year; and each day, an estimated 18 to 22 veterans die by suicide. An organization that is not only bringing unprecedented attention to this issue, but real action and  solutions to address it is Give an Hour, who has had a remarkable impact since its founding less than 15 years ago. And it’s a pleasure to have with us this evening, the founder and president of Give an Hour, Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen. Good evening, Barbara, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen

Barbara: Hello, Denver, and thank you for having me.

Denver: Share with us the mission and objectives of Give an Hour.

Barbara: Sure. Give an Hour, when I first founded the organization nearly 15 years ago, the idea was to harness skill-based volunteers to address the acute and chronic issues that affect our society. We began by harnessing mental health professionals because I am one, and we focused first on our veteran service members and their families. So, that was the beginning. It’s really to harness skill-based volunteers and direct those skills to situations, populations in need.

 we know that more people die each year in the United States by suicide than die in car accidents. We know that approximately 800,000 people die by suicide around the world each year.

…Social media, while it can be an incredibly powerful force for good, it may also be contributing to people feeling more isolated…That wonderful fear of missing out, FOMO.

Denver: We mentioned that about one in five people will have some mental illness episode during the course of a year. Do we know whether that number is on the rise with pressures of modern society?  Or are we just simply more aware of it?

Barbara: We’re definitely more aware of it, which is good, and we also know – just to give your listeners another number or two – we know that more people die each year in the United States by suicide than die in car accidents. We know that approximately 800,000 people die by suicide around the world each year. I mentioned suicide because we do know that the suicide rates are on the rise, and some groups even more so– young girl– which is horrifying and frightening. And this is very concerning.

Suicide is a very complex, complicated issue. But we do think that there are multiple factors contributing: the stress as you mentioned, the lack of community that we used to have that really protected us. Social media, while it can be an incredibly powerful force for good, it may also be contributing to people feeling more isolated… That wonderful fear of missing out, FOMO. When my daughter first started to say that, I was like, “What is that?” It’s a real thing, and it can cause people who are already feeling bad, to feel worse.

40% to 50% of people who are dealing with any kind of mental health challenge will ever get any kind of help. Part of that is that many people who have a diagnosable mental health condition, as you mentioned: one in five here in the US, one in four around the world, they may not even know that they’re walking around with something that’s affecting their family, their work, their sense of self, their ability to enjoy life.

Denver: You can go into some pretty dark places on the internet. There’s no question about that. Do many people receive any kind of help?

Barbara: We are working on it, and we’ll talk about that, I know, a little bit later about the work we’re doing to change that. But historically, no. The numbers are, even under the best circumstances, 40% to 50% of people who are dealing with any kind of mental health challenge will ever get any kind of help. Part of that is that many people who have a diagnosable mental health condition, as you mentioned: one in five here in the US, one in four around the world, they may not even know that they’re walking around with something that’s affecting their family, their work, their sense of self, their ability to enjoy life.

Denver: Let me ask you one more question about this. Do we have an estimate of the societal cost of mental illness?  And do we have any projections over the next decade or two?

Barbara: We know that globally, mental illness and unaddressed mental health will surpass the cost of cancer, diabetes, and respiratory infections combined. We’re talking trillions of dollars already, and trillions more expected in the next decade. I think what we’re seeing now is an appreciation that unaddressed mental health issues here in our country and around the world is the number one health crisis that we’re facing.

Denver: I think you’re right. You were in Washington, DC on 9/11, and it could be fair to say that the genesis of Give an Hour started then. Tell us about that day and the journey that it launched.

Barbara: I think it’s absolutely fair to say. I dropped my five-year-old daughter off at her school. It was a beautiful blue-sky day in DC just like it was in New York. I drove, and my one-year-old was at home with our nanny. I stopped at Safeway. I will never forget this. I stopped at Safeway. I picked up a couple of things, and in the check-out line, I was standing with one other man. The checker turned to us both and said, “I just heard the strangest thing on the radio. A plane hit one of the World Trade Center Towers.” All three of us looked at each other with this sick feeling. I got in my car. I turned on the radio. Drove the next 5 to 10 minutes almost as fast as I could to get home, and I literally stood holding my one-year-old daughter watching the Twin Towers fall on the Today Show. It was for all of us horrific. For me, because I’m a psychologist, my immediate reaction was, I want to help. I need to help. I had a really hard time finding a way to help, finding a way to give.

Denver: So, what you did is you reached out to your fellow mental health professionals. It’s hard for me to even conceive of the Dark Ages it was back then. The internet did not exist the way it does today. There was no Facebook, but there was Craigslist.

Barbara: There was Craigslist. Thank the Lord for Craigslist. I’ve had a chance to… many years ago, I met Craig, and we’ve seen each other over the years.

Denver: He was a guest just a few weeks ago.

Barbara: He’s a dear man, and he cares deeply about giving back and doing good. I am not a technologically savvy human being. But I knew about Craigslist because I had used it at that time. As I was building Give an Hour, I was going through a rather painful divorce because of some of the factors that affected my own emotional health and well-being growing up – another part of the story. I had found a wonderful nanny who was trading time, so that she could find a home to go to school, finish her work… her undergraduate education, and she was trading childcare. Wow! This Craigslist thing! if it can do that, why can’t I use it to bring mental health professionals together to provide free care to those who serve and their families? That’s what we began to do.

Denver: What is the significance of Give an Hour?

Barbara: For most folks who have never been to see a counselor or a therapist, they may not understand this; but those of your listeners who have will understand that most therapists – again, in the old days, this is changing, and this is a good thing. In the old days, mental health professionals typically saw someone by the hour. So, my thought was if I’m here, and I’m willing to give an hour of my time, set aside an hour in my practice… because I had two practices at that time – then I assume that other people like me would be willing to give an hour. I was literally driving around in my mom van with my daughters, who were a little older now… as we’re moving past 9/11… three to four years later. I’m sort of talking about this idea out loud. But I can’t figure out what to call it. I’m going to ask psychologists and psychiatrists to give an hour of their time to help these veterans and service members. My nine-year-old daughter said, “Mommy, just call it “Give an Hour.” I was like, “Okay, there you go.” And so we did.

Denver: That’s a wonderful name, I think, because so often people describe the condition or the malady or whatever. This is describing the action that you’re asking people to take. It really just creates energy in so many different ways. How many people have you been able to get to volunteer to give that hour?  And how many hours have they given?

Barbara: At any point in time over the last 13, 14 years, we’ve had between 5,000 and 7,000 mental health professionals in our network. Collectively, they have given over 277,000 hours of free care. That’s only what we can count. I’m a stickler for this. Sometimes people say, “You should extrapolate.” Because we survey our providers, and we get about a 15% return on surveys every quarter. We actually can count those 277,000 hours, but that’s about 15% of our total pool. We could multiply that, say we assume that it’s many, many times that. But I’m happy with 277,000 hours, or about $28 million worth of free care.

My dad served in the Pacific, clearly came home with post-traumatic stress. We didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know what it was. But it affected him. In addition to dealing with that, he was dealing with having a very mentally ill wife and three little boys and a baby girl in rural California. He was just an amazing man. I knew that if we could get help to these service members when they were coming back, rather than 10, 15, 20 years later, we could prevent what happened after Vietnam.

Denver: Well, I’m impressed. And your initial focus, as we mentioned before, was the military.

Barbara: Yes. My father served in World War II. I was very close to my dad. He raised us after my mom had a psychotic break soon after I was born, which absolutely set the course of my life. My dad served in the Pacific, clearly came home with post-traumatic stress. We didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know what it was. But it affected him. In addition to dealing with that, he was dealing with having a very mentally ill wife and three little boys and a baby girl in rural California. He was just an amazing man. I knew that if we could get help to these service members when they were coming back, rather than 10, 15, 20 years later, we could prevent what happened after Vietnam.

Denver: Of these 277,000 hours, how do these service men and women find you?  And what occurs during that hour?

Barbara: That’s a good question because sometimes people think that mental health professionals who are in our network, they only give one hour. But they actually commit to give an hour a week ongoing. They may see someone five hours. They may see someone 30 hours. It’s whatever the person needs. People find us by going to our website, giveanhour.org. That’s one way. We partner with everyone under the sun – the VA, the Department of Defense;  125 military and veteran organizations. We have alot, alot, alot of warm handoffs coming to us. When they find out about us, when they receive that suggestion or that opportunity, they work with a counselor or therapist just like anyone else would. You either go in to the office and see someone face to face like we’re sitting here today. They may do a phone support, phone counseling. Now, thanks to technology, we provide telehealth, which is a secure link that allows a therapist and his/her client to see each other using video like Facetime or like Skype to provide counseling that way.

Denver: A number of years ago, you decided to broaden your universe. What prompted you to extend your reach to other populations beyond military and veterans?

Barbara: We had this network growing. People were already starting to ask us, “Could we apply this model elsewhere?” But we were then and still are, a small, lean, mean nonprofit. I live in Washington, DC, and it was this time of year many years ago now, the Virginia Tech shooting occurred which was horribly upsetting and tragic. I thought: we have this network right here. That was the first time we opened the network up to offer free care to others affected by some kind of acute trauma. Since then, we have opened the network up countless times. Every time there’s a national disaster or man-made trauma. All the floods, the fires, the mass shootings. All of them far too frequent. Then, a few years ago, we actually did begin to expand the model and provide care to other populations, specifically those affected by gun violence, at-risk teens. Now we’re partnering with others to bring this expertise and this care to those who are hurting around the country, and now we’re expanding internationally.

 

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