Helping Families Manage OCD

By Julia Munemo

What Abbe Marrs Garcia ’93 does for a living can’t be easily summed up on a business card. Her official title is assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, but that doesn’t come close to communicating all that she does. Garcia mentors graduate and post-graduate students, she co-directs the pediatric anxiety research clinic at Rhode Island Hospital, and since 2013, she’s been the co-director of an intensive program for obsessive-compulsive disorder at Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I. It’s this last role she talks about as bringing her the most joy.

“I always feared a career in which the majority of my time would be spent on the clinical side,” she says. “I thought I wanted to maintain more of a balance with research work. Yet I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Dr. Abbe Marrs GarciaGarcia came to Williams with an inkling that she wanted to study psychology. Her father is a biologist and her mother a social worker. “I liked the idea of a career that combined the research aspect of one with the clinical aspects of the other,” she says. When she met psychology professor Laurie Heatherington early in her first year, she knew she found her mentor. “Laurie talked about psychology as offering a flexible career where you could be a researcher and a clinician,” Garcia says. “I admired how she combined her deep understanding of how to communicate with other human beings with a very analytical and scientific approach to her work.”

During her junior year, Garcia got her first taste of work in a clinical setting when she took Heatherington’s Clinical and Community Psychology class. Her field placement at a center in Pittsfield for mentally ill adults set her on the path she continues to walk today. But she needed more research experience, so after graduation she worked as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital. She was assigned to a project involving children of parents with panic disorder. “We were asking about intergenerational transmission of anxiety, an idea I had first been exposed to in Laurie’s classroom,” she says.

The project focused Garcia’s interests, and she applied to Ph.D. programs that would allow her to study childhood anxiety disorders. She chose Temple University because it meant studying with one of the masters in the field. In her final year of the program, she was placed in a clinical internship at Brown. She’s been there ever since.

The Pediatric Anxiety Research Clinic at Bradley—a program she co-founded and co-directs—offers help to children and adolescents with obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD involves intrusive thoughts or ideas and repetitive rituals, and it affects approximately one in 200 children. “What we do at Bradley is the empirically supported treatment for children and adolescents with this type of anxiety disorder,” she says. “It’s called ‘exposure therapy,’ and it involves helping the person experience small doses of what they fear, building their tolerance for the distress associated with it.”

But Garcia’s vision for the clinic isn’t just about exposure therapy. Her program also offers training to the families of children with OCD in their own homes. “This way parents become part of the solution,” she says. Children respond more quickly and are better able to sustain the results of their work because exposure therapy is offered both at the hospital and in the home. “That’s where the symptoms are really going to occur.”

The clinic treats 12-18 children at a time for an average of about six weeks. “After children leave the program the anxiety associated with their obsessions will no longer sideline them,” Garcia says. “They can keep going with their daily lives even when they’re anxious.” In the coming months, the clinic will expand its footprint at Bradley, and be able to double the number of patients it can serve at any given time.

Garcia says she was lucky to land at Williams back in the fall of 1989. “I only realized in retrospect how unique it was for a liberal arts college to have a clinical psychology track,” she says. “And the work I did with Laurie on family therapy research is deep in my soul now. It’s led to everything I’ve done since.”