Q&A with mental health advocate Barbara Van Dahlen


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Barbara Van Dahlen, center, founder of the Campaign to Change Direction, with Peter Evers, left, of Concord-based Riverbend Community Health, and former NH Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, co-chair of the statewide effort to teach people to be aware of the five signs of emotional suffering.

Barbara Van Dahlen is the founder of two powerful national initiatives to address mental health-related issues. In 2005, the Washington, D.C.-based clinical psychologist founded Give an Hour, a national network of over 7,000 mental health professionals who provide free services to U.S. troops, veterans and their families.

More recently, she founded the Campaign to Change Direction, an effort to raise awareness about and change the culture of mental health in America. The goal of the campaign is to teach people to be aware of the five signs of emotional suffering – withdrawal, agitation, hopelessness, decline in personal care and change in personality.

On May 23, Van Dahlen visited Representatives Hall at the New Hampshire State House to launch the campaign’s first statewide initiative, which is being led by former NH Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick and Peter Evers, CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health Inc.

Q. When you spoke to the hundreds of people in Representatives Hall and asked them to raise their hand if they were not affected by mental illness, no one raised their hand. What does that say to you?

A. I know the answer before I ask the question. The way we talk about this, the five signs are about emotional suffering. Who among us has not experienced emotional suffering? We all have it, every day.

Today I’m having a great day, mental health-wise, but if something happened to me tomorrow – if something happened to one of my daughters, either physically or emotionally, or my husband, or someone I care about, I would most likely struggle. I would be hurting. We all go through that continuum of life.

Q. Why did you choose New Hampshire as the place to launch the first statewide initiative?

A. New Hampshire is the perfect size to be able to really say we can do this in an entire state. At our first steering committee meeting were the head of HHS, the head of Corrections, representatives of both senators, and we met with Annie Kuster that morning. So it is a state that allows people to really know each other. That’s what we need in order to create a model at the state level and then give it to all the other states.

Q. In terms of people reaching out. How does that work? Let’s say you know the five signs, someone talks to somebody about it. How do they get there?

A. That’s why we’re starting with “know these five signs,” because then we create a common language. Then if I see if someone’s hurting – if you have been withdrawn or more agitated and you and I are friends, I can say, “I care about you. I noticed this and this.”

It’s the same thing that humans do when they open the door. They start sharing. They start talking. They provide the support. They say, “It’s OK, you really should tell your wife that you’re hurting. Or you really should talk to your son that he’s drinking too much.” That’s the cultural shift we’re after.

Q. We’ve seen in New Hampshire that businesses are now talking about opioids in the workplace. Is discussing mental health the next step?

A. When I was building Change Direction, I reached out to a friend of mine who’s a very high-level executive of a corporation. I told her what we’re doing and asked her if they wanted to be involved. She said, “Absolutely.” I said, ”Great.” She said, “Thank you.” I said, “OK.” “No,” she said, “Thank you. I’m OCD. Every day I come to work and have to hide it. I manage 200 people in our company, and I have to pretend that this is not part of me. I manage it, I function, I deal with it. I know what to do, at times I struggle, but I have to hide it. What you’re doing is going to change everything.”

That’s the story in every company in this country. There are people throughout who have these challenges. They’re functional, they’re great employees, so why should they be walking around feeling like they can’t talk about it, the way they would if something is going on with their chemo treatment or anything else?

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