The daughter of a war veteran herself, Barbara experienced the Vietnam War although she wasn’t physically present in the battlefield. Her father’s stories made her feel more involved than any other young people of her age. On the contrary, her father never told them about the ugly side of war. All she and her three brothers heard from him was accounts of bravery, honor, and heroism. Those stories profoundly shaped Barbara’s formative years and she grew up with tremendous respect for men in service. But it wasn’t her father’s involvement in the Navy that compelled her to have a career in psychology. As soon as her father was back from service, their mother suffered from mental illness, making her unfit to care for Barbara and her brothers. In order to get custody, her father had to fight for his rights in the court which was fortunately granted to him.
Since then, Barbara realized the magnanimity of the mental health issues’ effect on the family. Tragedy again struck when his older brother drowned, which led her to recoil and keep to herself. Afraid that his daughter might eventually lose her mind, Barbara’s father did all he could to reach out to her and help her cope with her grief. It was an overwhelmingly difficult time for the family, and Barbara would have ended up like her mother had it not been for her father.
It marked a turning point in Barbara’s life and would eventually direct her course as she grew older and began to lead a career of her own. She was determined to understand how the human psyche works in order to help others who are going through a difficult phase in their life. She was well aware that without her father who has always been there to support her, it would have been twice as hard for her to handle pain.
Her passion for human mental behavior got her as far as being recognized in the field of psychology. Known as one of the most effective psychologists, she had a fruitful career. Until she felt that she has to do more. It was her innate desire to serve and give back that propelled her to go out of her comfort zone and give a slice of her time to others. Little did she know that her fearless act would become as big as it is now. What is it that she has done and where did she find the courage to do it? Let’s get to know this soft-spoken doctor and be not deceived by her manner of speaking. As gentle as she sounds, this woman has a heart and disposition of a warrior.
Barbara’s Early Life
Barbara has always been proud of her father and what he has achieved in his life. Her talks would always include him and the career she would later on have was her way of further honoring him. Barbara’s father lied about his age just to be able to join the American Navy and fight during World War II. Unlike other boys his age who dodged military service, Barbara’s father went out of his way to serve his country.
When Barbara was born in 1960, she grew up surrounded by boys—her three brothers and father. She was very close to all of them and hungered for the stories about heroism that their soldier father always told them. He regaled them with stories about camaraderie with his fellow soldiers and how they don’t hesitate to lay down their life for the sake of their brothers. He left out the gory parts of being in service.
However, there were times when her father would just burst into anger at the slightest provocation. Later on, Barbara would infer as a professional psychologist that his father’s sudden fits of anger were brought about by trauma that remained untapped. She even said that she wished she had the chance to ask her father about the ugly face of war, the part that he chose to keep to himself.
The family went through a difficult time when Barbara’s mother started showing signs of mental illness. It worsened until it came to the point wherein she could no longer take care of her kids. Although she was still very young then, Barbara clearly recalls how her father fought for their custody. In a way, she now thinks that better policies must be in place for couples who encounter the same problem that her parents did to make custody battle less straining.
In the long run, her father won their custody and raised the four of them by himself following their divorce. Barbara didn’t mind staying with her father because of the kind of man that he was. He did his best to teach his children to face challenges head on. One more thing that he taught Barbara was the value of hard work. Under his tutelage, Barbara grew up with so much respect for what people do for a living no matter how insignificant they seemed to be. More importantly, Barbara developed a high esteem for soldiers like her father.
When Barbara was 15 years old, her older brother drowned in an attempt to save his girlfriend. Heroism was ingrained in their system and unfortunately it cut his brother’s life short. It would have been easier for Barbara to accept if she wasn’t that close to him. Still too young to go through such an intensity of pain, Barbara’s world crashed. Apparently, she was showing early signs of depression that when prolonged, could lead to serious mental illness. Because of what happened to her mother, Barbara’s father must have seen the symptoms just in time to save Barbara from sinking deeper.
After her brother’s death, Barbara pretty much kept to herself and became another person overnight. She did not know how to deal with the premature death in her family, especially of one very dear to her. Even though Barbara’s father was also grieving for the loss of his son, he couldn’t let his only daughter’s sanity slip. He had to think of his son’s death as secondary to Barbara’s well-being.
What he did was constantly watch her and talk to her until she slowly came into terms with the fact that her brother is gone. It was not easy but Barbara was able to come out of depression.
First her mother and then herself—Barbara wanted to find out what leads human beings to feel the way she did and how each person copes with difficulties. Barbara has been through a lot considering that she was only a teenager. This early initiation to grief toughened her up and soon contributed to her becoming fearless.
Barbara decided that in order to get a broader understanding of the human mental mechanisms, she has to study.
Having a Career in Psychology
When Barbara survived her near-depression encounter, she decided to take on a career in psychology. As she was taking her graduate studies in 1986, her father died. Her father’s demise became more bearable since she was already equipped with knowledge about handling fear and grief.
She kept on pursuing further studies in psychology and finally completed her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 1991. She shortly began a prolific career as a clinic psychologist in Maryland. It proved to be a good choice because she soon became a popular doctor in her own right. On the other hand, her marriage was not going so well due to unforeseen factors she attributes to invisible injuries of long time ago that she is yet to resolve. The marriage fell apart and she was left with her two daughters. Much like her father, Barbara finds herself in a situation wherein she must be fearless to protect her little ones.
Parenting According to Barbara
Not different from most parents, Barbara felt the inevitable urge to protect her girls from the harsh world. Being a professional psychologist, however, gave her access to information on how to raise secure and independent children. She advises parents to assure their kids that they are going to do their best not to allow anything bad to happen to them, while educating them about the reality of death or separation.
According to her, she discovered that she could be fearless upon seeing her eldest daughter right after giving birth to her. The moment she saw her, she just knew that she won’t hesitate giving her life to protect her children. That’s the kind of fearlessness invoked by being a parent. Later on, she would find out that the kind of fearlessness she felt also existed outside the context of parental love.
She was divorced but found another love in the person of a fellow psychologist. He was the first person who told Barbara that she is doing something worthwhile and that as a doctor, he is proud of her efforts in giving back to people who need mental care but are hesitant to seek consultation or simply couldn’t afford its cost.
Give an Hour Has Began
Just as everything began to settle down after her faulty marriage, Barbara felt that she ought to do more than help her patients recover from trauma. She realized that just like parents to their children, soldiers are ready to give their life for the country and their brothers. After the 9/11 bombing, Barbara saw footages of soldiers being sent to Afghanistan and later on news about them returning home to their families. It reminded her of her father, how he tried to deal with his traumatic experience on his own, thereby affecting him and his family as well.
Everything came back to her including her father’s sudden fits of anger and her way of dealing with pain. In 2005, she finally established Give an Hour to honor her father and serve the soldiers who valiantly fought to protect their people. The name Give an Hour was suggested by her then-13-year-old daughter, saying that she should name her organization as such because that is exactly what she wanted to ask her fellow psychologists to do.
In her speech before the Congress, she gave them a backgrounder about the foundations of Give an Hour:
"I founded Give an Hour™ in 2005. As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I became concerned about the stories coming home about those who were serving. Although the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs were doing more than ever before in their efforts to care for the invisible injuries of war, service members were clearly struggling and their families were suffering. Early studies by Charles Hoge and others indicated that significant numbers of service members would continue to come home with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, and other understandable consequences of exposure to the brutality of war." (Source: U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs)
What makes Give an Hour unique is the way they offer their services. Because of the stigma that people consulting psychologists usually suffer from, their patients remain anonymous. They only ask for their zip code and have them choose who to consult. Since it began in 2005, Give an Hour has grown into an organization with almost 7,000 volunteers ranging from professional psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, and spiritual advisers. Since they have no way of tracking down the number of people they have helped due to the nature of their service, they get the statistics from their doctors and volunteers who keep tabs of the number of hours they give to the patients.
To date, they have given over 57,000 hours of free consultation to thousands of soldiers in the United States. Encouragement from other organizations such as The Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, Blue Star Families, and the Community Blueprint Network keep her going. From providing counseling to those who sustained invisible injuries while fighting for their country, Give an Hour has become a vehicle for these service people to get reintegrated to society.
Studies show that more and more soldiers are becoming too disillusioned that they resort to killing themselves. Suicide among soldiers is one more thing that Barbara would like to curb by setting up Give an Hour. Sometimes all they need is professional help, but because of the existing stereotype that only weak people consult mental doctors, they don’t consider that option. Through Give an Hour, Barbara is spreading the word about the reality of trauma and how anyone can be prone to feeling anxious and depressed. She wants people to understand that there is nothing wrong about seeking help. More often than not, getting professional help could prevent irreparable damage anxiety and trauma create to a person’s mind.
When Barbara was included in TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012, Admiral Mike Mullen wrote the following to describe her:
"Barbara cares for people and is dedicated to making their lives better. She has served thousands nobly and has been an extraordinary example for all of us in her life and her giving." (Source: Time)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Give an Hour
- Habitat for Humanity International's Military and Veterans
- Veterans Affairs
- Veterans Advantage
- Community Blueprint Network
- American Psychiatric Association
- You Serve LLC
- Got Your 6
- The Mission Continues
- Service Nation
- TAPS (the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)
- SVA (Student Veterans of America)
- Bristol Myers-Squibb Foundation
- Booz Allen Hamilton
Awards and Achievements
- 1991: Received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Maryland
- 2005: Founded Give an Hour
- 2009: Received the Rosalee Weiss Distinguished Public Service award from the American Psychiatric Association
- 2009: Launched You Serve LLC
- 2010: Awarded Working Woman of the Year
- 2010: Received a citation as one of Woman’s Day magazine’s 50 Women Who Are Changing the World
- 2010: Selected as a featured speaker at the annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy
- 2011: Testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the topic “VA Mental Health Care: Addressing Wait Times and Access to Care"
- 2012: Give an Hour was chosen as one of the five winners of the White House's Joining Forces Community Challenge, sponsored by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden
- 2012: Named by TIME as one of the Most Influential People in the World
- Serves on Habitat for Humanity International's Military and Veterans Advisory Committee
- Recipient of the Maryland Governor’s Volunteer Service Award
- Named a winner in the White House’s Joining Forces Community Challenge
Time (The World's 100 Most Influential People: 2012 )
Smart Planet (Q&A: Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour)
Give An Hour (Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. Founder & President of Give an Hour™)
The Huffington Post (Psychological Wounds Take Toll on Post-9/11 Veterans)
The Huffington Post (Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D.)
Hope for Women Magazine (World Warriors: Women Who Are Changing Our World — Maryland’s Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen organizes “Give An Hour” for our troops)
Think Progress (Bradley Cooper On What ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ Can Teach Us About Mental Illness)
APA (Give an Hour founder Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2012)
Operation Gratitude Blog (Volunteering as a way of life…)
The Huffington Post (PBS's 'This Emotional Life': Remembering the Psychological Impact of War, and Doing Something About It)
The Free Library (Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen Named One of TIME Magazine's TIME 100.)
Towson University News (One of Time magazine’s “most influential people” tours campus)
Veterans Advantage (Stepping Up After Sequestration)
Time (A Visit With General Dana Pittard)
CASE Foundation (Barbara Van Dahlen)
Spirit of War Military Blog (An Interview with Give an Hour Founder and Time's 2012 100 Most Influential People Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen)
U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs (Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, Founder and President , Give an Hour)