Thursday, August 7, 2008

Charles Barber

Charles Barber was educated at Harvard and Columbia and worked for ten years in New York City shelters for the homeless mentally ill. The title essay of his first book, Songs from the Black Chair, won a 2006 Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in the New York Times and Scientific American Mind, among other publications, and on NPR. He is a senior administrator at The Connection, an innovative social services agency, and a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine.

From a Q & A about his latest book, Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation:

Q. Americans account for two-thirds of the global antidepressant and psychiatric drug market. What drives Americans to want to be “comfortably numb”?

A. Americans have always liked the quick-fix, and overwhelming the enemy with technology – whether it’s a foreign country or a medical problem. But we like it more than ever – probably fueled by our ever-shortening attention spans, and the expectation that everything will or must occur at the click of a mouse. Another factor driving American drug-taking is our increasing isolation from each other, accompanied by a simultaneous pressure to achieve and perform, including the achievement of happiness. The result of all of this is Americans are rushing to the medicine cabinet, in particular for antidepressants – the most prescribed drug in America – in record numbers. We think that what we find there will eradicate our distress, numb out our internal discord, and help us keep with the Jones’s – or the Gates’s.

Q. During the last decades, the public began to view mental illness as common and easily treated with medication: celebrities declaring their problems, ordinary people talking about their pills. Do you believe that attitudes toward the truly mentally ill have changed?

A. No. The truly mentally ill – people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, for example – are just as stigmatized as they’ve ever been. It may now be acceptable and even cool to talk about taking antidepressants at a party, and it certainly is cool for an actress to talk about her bout with depression on Oprah (as long as it’s now well under control and she has a new hit movie) but see what happens if you talk about hearing voices or having visions. People will move away as fast as they can. And with all the increased rates of psychiatric drug-taking by the masses, the number of people with really serious mental illnesses who are in proper treatment remains very low.
Read the complete Q & A.

The Page 99 Test: Comfortably Numb.

--Marshal Zeringue