Want to help address the vast mental health needs among military members, veterans and their families? Look into Give an Hour, a national network of 6,100 volunteers who provide free mental health services to veterans, service members and their families.
Founded by clinical psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, Give an Hour landed her on Time magazine's list of "100 Most Influential People in the World" this year. gradPSYCH caught up with Van Dahlen to ask about her plans to get graduate students more involved with her organization and about her role in a national effort to improve how people view returning vets.
What inspired you to start Give an Hour?
I was a practicing psychologist in Washington, D.C., on 9/11 and as I watched the World Trade Center fall, I really wanted to offer my skills to people in need in New York City and here in Washington. There didn't seem to be an easy way to do so. Four years later, I realized that those coming home from war also needed our help to heal, so I created a way for mental health professionals to give their time.
Are the military and society adequately meeting the mental health needs of returning vets?
There is more being done today — by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs — than ever before. But the needs are tremendous and there is much more to be done. I don't believe that the care of our veterans should be solely the responsibility of the government. We all have a responsibility to support those who serve and their families. Regardless of your position on a given conflict, the men and women in the military serve our country at great risk to themselves.
What can graduate students do to help?
Graduate students can start educating themselves on the issues that affect those who serve and their families, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety.
They can also volunteer with Give an Hour by helping at conferences and events around the country and through social media campaigns. Graduate students help with administrative tasks and can do research for us on various projects. Graduate students play a very important role in our efforts.
This fall we are working with our mental health association partners and with graduate training programs and colleges and universities all over the country to encourage students in all disciplines to educate themselves on these important issues. We are also planning a spring conference in New York City where students will be able to spend a day learning about the military culture and the mental health issues that come home from war. Attendees will also participate in a service project that brings students together with veterans and military families.
Tell me about the ‘Got Your 6' campaign you're involved with.
Got Your 6 is a public education campaign led by the entertainment industry that aims to change the way people perceive the military and returning vets and spotlight the skills they have to offer. Got Your 6 is a military saying — it means "I've got your back."
It's a very exciting, very high-profile campaign, and Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin are among the celebrities involved. Our role in the campaign is to work toward ensuring that the next generation of mental health professionals is properly prepared to meet the needs of this deserving population. We will soon have a wide array of training materials on our website, including videos, articles and documentaries, and we'll provide those who visit and learn with a certificate from the campaign.
What advice do you have for students who work with military members in practicums or on internship?
Be open to learning about the military culture from those who seek care. Trust is a huge issue in working with any individual or group, perhaps more so with our military clients for several reasons. Values supported by the military culture may unintentionally make it difficult for those in need to seek care. Qualities such as mental toughness and self-reliance are respected and are encouraged. A service member may be reluctant to step forward and seek care — he or she may feel weak or inadequate.
We in the mental health field must understand this frame of reference if we are to gain a service member's trust as we begin to work with them. Join them in their journey to understand the impact the war has had on them. Don't be afraid to explore other options besides traditional therapy. Perhaps finding the next meaningful mission here at home is the best medicine for a veteran.
Has your work with Give an Hour changed how you feel about psychology practice?
Yes and no. The tools we have as psychologists are very powerful if applied effectively. But I have become a firm believer that we will continue to be effective and relevant only if we find ways to integrate our skills and knowledge into the larger system of health care.
We have so much to offer, but we must be more collaborative as a profession and as individual providers.