More than just donating time, 'Give an Hour' looking to change the way we think about mental health

Matt Saintsing
February 12, 2018 - 3:06 pm
Sam Brown

Photo by Zia Nizami/Belleville News-Democrat/MCT/Sipa USA


Look, we all know the VA is far from perfect. But, a recent study finds half of veterans aren’t getting the mental health care they need. To make matters worse, more than half of those who would benefit from care don’t even know they need it.

How, then, are veterans expected to make the often arduous trek to seek out care?

That’s where Give an Hour comes in.

Seeking to overcome the social barriers that deter mental health care, Give an Hour, a nonprofit organization, has grown an extended network of mental health providers, volunteers, and advocates to tackle mental health challenges in the military and veteran community, and beyond.

“It’s not just telling people who need mental health services to get themselves to the VA,” says Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist and president of Give an Hour.

“It’s much more nuanced, and complicated, and has to start much earlier than when somebody is dealing with an issue.”

More than a network

For 13 years, Give an Hour has been working with as many partners, both inside the government and in the private sector, as they can find. They have 6,000 to 7,000 mental health providers at any given time to donate an hour of their services each week, to those in need.  

So far, more than 250,000 hours have been donated.

And they serve every service component, from active duty troops to veterans with bad paper charges, and everyone in between.

“We can offer these services by phone, and when telehealth became available we started doing that, something that is possible because no money is exchanged for the services,” says Van Dahlen.

Using telehealth and free hour-long phone sessions is particularly advantageous for veterans who live in rural areas who may be burdened with traveling long distances, sometimes in a neighboring state, to receive care.

Culture Change

Other than working to expand the network of mental health providers, which Van Dahlen hopes to grow to 500,000—matching the number of mental health providers in the country—the group also has an initiative to change the broader culture surrounding health care.

“So many mental health issues can be addressed if we detect them early, and not let them slip into crisis situations or chronic situations,” Van Dahlen continues.

“If we use people like me to do early education intervention identification, that’s where we want to go. We don’t want to be in reactive mode.”

Somewhere along the way, people began associating those symptoms with cardiac arrest and when they notice it, people take action. That’s precisely what Give an Hour is trying to do with mental health.

“if you see someone clutching their chest, sweating profusely, and saying their chest is killing them, you don’t just shrug and say good luck with that,” she says

But, the effort doesn’t always mean a diagnosis. Instead, the group is trying to help people recognize emotional pain through their Campaign to Change Direction.

Being withdrawn, agitated, and thoughts of self-harm are just some of the tell-tale signs they’re training people to spot in friends, family, and even themselves.

They see the military and veteran community as a way to shift the broader culture. So far, 125 of their 500 partners are veteran organizations, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars joining last year.

And there’s no signs of slowing down.

“We can build programs, but if we don’t help people feel differently or educate people earlier people won’t go to get help,” according to Van Dallen.

“Then, patients can end up hospitalized or in jail, and that’s not the way to do this.”

Give an Hour is always looking to expand their network. If you’re a mental health provider interested in donating your time and expertise, you can click here.