Be Fearless Spotlight: Barbara Van Dahlen

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Barbara Van Dahlen for over a decade, so it came as no surprise to me when she was named to TIME’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Her energy and enthusiasm for her work are contagious, but perhaps the thing I admire most about Barbara is how she and the organizations she leads embody the Be Fearless principles we champion here at the Case Foundation. Her work with Give an Hour and Campaign to Change Direction aims to change the culture in America around mental health—a bold and audacious goal to be sure.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Barbara and ask her a few questions about her groundbreaking work. Below, she shares how the Be Fearless principles are influencing the efforts of both Given an Hour and the Campaign to Change Direction.

Jean: How do you and the team you work with view Being Fearless? 

Barbara: For us, Being Fearless means taking on whatever challenge is necessary in order to ensure that those who serve our country—and their families—have the mental health support and care they deserve. It means being bold in our decision to take on the heavy lift of changing the culture of mental health in America through our new collective impact effort, the Campaign to Change Direction, so that all Americans are free to value their emotional well-being just as they do their physical well-being.

Being fearless means looking beyond what is safe and easy to what is necessary—it means using our skills, expertise and creativity to find solutions and reduce suffering in our world.

Jean: One of the Be Fearless principles is to “Make Big Bets and Make History.” What “big bets” have you and your team made, and how have they paid off?

Barbara: Three years ago, after the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut, I was asked to take a look at how we might address the mental health needs in our country. After pulling together a group of trusted colleagues to study the issue, we came to the conclusion that the greatest barrier to mental health care in America is our culture. We just don’t value emotional well-being in this country—not the way we do physical well-being. As a result, people who are suffering from emotional pain, trauma or mental health conditions often feel weak or broken—they feel shame and guilt and they don’t seek care. More people die by suicide than in car accidents—we can do better.

Give an Hour has accepted the challenge, and the privilege, of leading a national collective impact effort to change the culture of mental health in America. The Campaign to Change Direction launched last March. I was thrilled to have you, Jean, join us for the launch and set the stage with an inspiring speech about the power of collective impact efforts, and to have First Lady Michelle Obama close our event with a call to action to all Americans to join this movement.

Our “big bet” that the country is ready for this type of cultural shift is paying off. Thanks to the generous support of our Founding Members, including the Case Foundation, we have already far surpassed our initial goals. We began with 50 partners and a plan to reach 30 million Americans in five years. We have already introduced the campaign to 176 million Americans and now have over 180 partners with communities stepping up to help all over the country. Culture change takes time, but we are on our way!

Jean: Can you tell us about a time when you let a sense of urgency drive your objectives? 

Barbara: That is a very interesting question. I felt a sense of urgency about addressing the unmet mental health needs in our society long before I made the decision to walk away from my successful clinical practice to launch Give an Hour. I have seen the impact of mental health challenges, substance abuse and trauma on adults, on children and on families. I have also seen so many success stories—people who were struggling emotionally and found healing, health and support.

We don’t have all of the answers in the mental health arena—any more than we have the answers to cure all of the physical diseases and conditions in the world. But if we break through the cultural barriers that leave people feeling ashamed or embarrassed about their emotional functioning and mental health needs, and if we encourage everyone to pay attention to and value their emotional well-being, we will reduce suffering, save relationships and save resources. Here in America and globally, the human cost and the economic impact of unaddressed mental health care is massive.

I don’t mind feeling this sense of urgency. It keeps me focused and it fuels my passion.

Jean: You told us a bit about the bold goal that you are working toward—to change the culture of mental health in America. Can you share more about that and how developing it changed your team’s approach to changemaking, if at all? 

Barbara: Our goal, to change the culture of mental health in America, is bold, and the challenge is huge. It actually took some time for some of our staff members to get comfortable with the concept. I think some were concerned that taking on such an audacious goal might take away from our focus on providing free mental health care to those who serve in the military and their families. Our staff members—many of whom have a connection to the military themselves—are incredibly dedicated to our focus on those who serve and their families. I understand why they were a bit reluctant. And some staff members were worried about our ability to staff and manage such a large undertaking, which is another understandable reaction.

Over time, however, our staff has coalesced around the power of this opportunity. They understand that culture change is absolutely necessary if we want to prevent suffering and improve well-being. They understand that we can’t ensure that those in need, military or civilian, receive the mental health care that they deserve if they are reluctant, unwilling or afraid to acknowledge or seek that help. Changing our culture—so that we all value our emotional well-being, so that we all talk comfortably about our emotional challenges—is the only way to succeed with our lofty mission.

And in terms of taking on something this massive… if not us, who? We will move forward aggressively, smartly and with as many partners as we can engage to make this heavy lift possible.

Jean: I love that you mentioned partnerships there. Are you engaging in any unlikely partnerships in an effort to reach beyond your bubble? 

Barbara: There is a wise psychiatrist from India, Vikram Patel, who talks about “mental health for all by involving all.” We are building a very big tent to drive and support the culture change we seek to achieve.

We have always been an organization that grows organically. By that I mean that we tend to focus on building strong relationships first, with organizations in our own backyard, and across sectors. We develop partnerships with individuals and organizations that share our passion and our vision—even if they might not appear to be an obvious partner. Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial, and sometimes we partner to assist others in their efforts, even if it might appear that they have nothing to contribute immediately to our work. Partnering, collaborating, assisting, sharing: it all comes back in the end and is part of a collective effort to improve the health and well-being of all people.

Since launching the Campaign to Change Direction, we have had the honor of engaging a number of public figures and celebrities. In addition to First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, we have been fortunate to receive help from Brian Wilson, Richard Gere, John Cusak, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Dano, Ben Foster and Margarita Levieva. Each stepped in to assist in our efforts to raise awareness. Each contributed to the movement we are building.

Most recently, country music star Chris Stapleton released his first music video, Fire Away, which addresses the issue of suicide in an artistically beautiful and emotionally painful film that features The Campaign to Change Direction. We received over 125,000 visits to our site in less than four weeks following the release of this powerful video.

We are proud of the community we are building, but not surprised by the support we are receiving. Mental health is part of the human condition. It’s time we recognize how important our emotional well-being is for all of us.

TEDxMidAtlantic videos: Reach Beyond Your Bubble and Be Fearless

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

Partnership, collective impact, shared value—no matter what you call it, collaboration is the key to reaching beyond your bubble, overcoming fear, and creating new possibilities. At TEDxMidAtlantic in October of 2012, more than 40 speakers from around the country came together to talk about what being fearless meant to them. They admitted that it can be scary to break away from the established path and start a new journey. It might feel like you have to rely on yourself (and no one else!) to achieve your dreams.

But speakers like Kakenya Ntaiya, Barbara van Dahlen, and Jessica Ladd told us that this isn’t true. Reaching beyond your bubble spreads knowledge and deepens impact. Watch the videos below and share them with people you know who are reaching beyond their bubble.

Kakenya Ntaiya (recently named a CNN Hero) reminds us that it’s okay to ask for help and when you accomplish your goals, you can change an entire community. Kakenya was the first girl in her small village in Kenya to attend college in the United States. Her entire village came together to help her take that leap, and today, her dream is to return home and give back.

Barbara van Dahlen, psychologist and founder of Give an Hour, further adds that being fearless can come from a sense of duty, like soldiers who fight because they believe in a shared mission of protecting their country. In the aftermath of military service, PTSD is a pervasive problem, and cultivating relationships with friends and family is pivotal for overcoming its challenges.

Jessica Ladd points out that the spread of sexually transmitted diseases can be eradicated when people are honest with each other. Jessica created a website to help individuals communicate with their previous sexual partners without dread or embarrassment. By tackling our fears one person at a time, entire communities can benefit.

Are you ready to be fearless? Take a pledge to reach beyond your bubble, collaborate with others, and start something new. To learn more about the amazing speakers at TEDxMidAtlantic Be Fearless, watch all of the presentations here.

Fearless Focus: Barbara Van Dahlen

In our journey to Be Fearless and champion a fearless approach to tackling social challenges, the Case Foundation will spotlight leading changemakers across sectors that have embraced fearlessness. Our spotlights will provide personal accounts of why these changemakers adopted a fearless approach, how they overcame hurdles, and how taking risks, being bold, and failing forward led to quicker results and deeper impact.

This Fearless Focus is on Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., Founder & President of Give an Hour™, a national nonprofit organization that provides free mental health care to our returning troops, their families, and their communities.  Barbara was recently named to the TIME 100 list for her efforts in creating and leading Give an Hour to help fill a critical need for mental health services for our nation’s military.  Admiral Mike Mullen shared more about Barbara’s fearless work with TIME:

“Through her organization, Give an Hour, she has mobilized thousands of mental-health professionals to volunteer countless hours of counseling for those in need, at a time when there is a critical shortfall in the military and throughout our country.

Barbara has tenaciously attacked the epidemic of posttraumatic stress disorder, helping break through the stigma that prevents many from seeking help. She has also created an opportunity for many who have not served in uniform to make a difference.

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.”

I am the president and founder of Give an Hour and a licensed clinical psychologist. I am also the mother of two girls who will inherit the world that I leave behind.

There are many social issues, both local and global, that require our attention. Some appear more urgent than others, but all result in suffering and should, therefore, concern us. In order to successfully address any one of these issues we must be determined, resourceful, and yes, we must be fearless. We must be willing to face rejection of our ideas-not once but repeatedly. We must be able to withstand uncertainty, doubt, and disappointment-for if the tasks were easy, others would have accomplished them long ago.  And we must tolerate the limitations of others and ourselves-for if any of us were perfect, social issues like the ones that burden our communities (poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, hunger) would be rare occurrences indeed.

My father taught me to be fearless. He was a World War II veteran. He served in the Navy in the Pacific. He fought in battles, he was injured, and he never talked about it. But he did talk about honor and integrity and service. He raised four children, for many years by himself. He taught by example, and he never took the easy way out. He followed his principles, and he encouraged his children to follow theirs even if they differed from his. He valued honesty and directness, and he always spoke up when he saw an injustice. I learned how to accept adversity – and how to appreciate my accomplishments – from my dad. I admired his compassion and selflessness, and I learned that if you find your passion and you focus on a mission that is greater than yourself, being fearless sort of comes with the territory.

Two years ago our organization faced a crossroads. No one on staff (other than my vice president, who has been my trusted partner from the beginning) knew about the crisis. We had expected to receive continued funding from a major sponsor, but a decision that had nothing to do with us changed their funding priorities. It was a very uncertain and difficult time. I worried about our staff members, their families, and our mission. Rather than allow our fear to paralyze us, we developed a plan to save our organization and its mission-even if it meant turning over the reins of GAH to another organization. Fortunately, the head of the foundation that had provided our funding, with whom I had a wonderful relationship, championed our cause and secured a chunk of funding to help us during the transition. No one was laid off, and no programs suffered. Within a few months we had several additional funding streams in place, and Give an Hour has continued to expand ever since.

Launching and growing a nonprofit organization in the current climate within our country is very difficult indeed. But it isn’t impossible. Funders want to support good programs. It is important that nonprofits provide a quality “product.” It is critical that we engage in best practices when we can find them-and create them when they don’t exist. If we are successful in accomplishing this, then foundations and corporations will support our critical efforts. In our case our funder was so pleased with what we had accomplished with their generous financial gift that he stepped up to ensure that we had the funding we needed to continue our mission.