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Growing through OCD

March-April 2006

“I am glad I have OCD,” writes Charles M. Barber ’85 in his memoir, Songs from the Black Chair. Barber, who spent a decade as a counselor in two of New York City’s largest homeless shelters, is now a writer and researcher at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Program for Recovery and Community Health. He first worked with the homeless and mentally ill in an effort to cope with his own obsessive-compulsive disorder, but continued after his symptoms improved, handling 13-hour shifts at the Bellevue shelter and at a second shelter nicknamed “The Fort.” The low-paying, long-hours job, he writes, “is so obviously rewarding, and so obviously not boring.”

Therapist Charles M. Barber and his son

In the book, Barber questions society’s silence with respect to “serious and persistent mental illnesses,” telling his own story along with those of unnamed childhood friends who wrestled with depression and those of his anonymous clients, the homeless mentally ill. As an undergraduate, he struggled with the burgeoning symptoms of OCD at a time when the campus was less sensitive to mental illness. “I basically felt like a freak and didn’t know where to turn,” he says now. Isolated by his condition, he took six semesters off between his freshman and sophomore years to work in group homes for the mentally retarded in his hometown.

When he did return to pursue his degree in psychology, he was befriended by Agee professor of social ethics Robert Coles. A suggestion from Coles that he work in a New York City shelter sparked Barber’s interest in the homeless, leading to his decade of service. He learned about his clients through direct experience rather than through graduate studies in psychology or social work. He wrote most of his book between clients’ appointments at the shelters.

Barber’s second book, Zoloft at the Super Bowl, to be published by Random House next year, will explore the widespread popularity of mental-health medications. (The title refers to a Zoloft commercial that aired during the 2001 Super Bowl.) “In the beginning of the 1990s, I felt like what I was doing was marginal,” Barber says. “I took that commercial as [evidence] that biological psychiatry and medications had entered the absolute mainstream of American culture.”

He contrasts his own undergraduate experience with data from an article published in January 2004 by the Harvard Crimson, which reported that 80 percent of undergraduates had felt depressed at least once in the past year. “Things like brain imaging have given people an understanding that mental illness is a biochemical phenomenon. When people can understand that it’s not a character fault, they’re entirely more sympathetic,” Barber says. “In many ways, it’s a good thing, but I almost think there’s been an over-embrace [of biochemical explanations].” His book will be an attempt to reconcile the consumption of psychiatric medications by the “worried well” with the lack of attention and treatment for the serious and persistently mentally ill.

Today, Barber lives in New Haven with his wife and son. His new job involves designing and researching treatment programs at Yale’s department of psychiatry. One such program employs people who are successfully coping with mental illnesses to act as role models for the patients. Barber says he focuses on alternative treatments that go beyond the success-or-failure approach of medication and encourage patients to view their problems as challenges that may be overcome. “The medical model is so embraced that we can’t tolerate our own discomfort or unhappiness—as if when you’re unhappy, there must be something wrong with you. I would argue that suffering has its uses,” Barber explains. “There is some linkage between having di∞cult experiences and doing something productive as a result.”                                          

~Emer Vaughn