Trigger warning for readers sensitive to mentions of sexual trauma or violence: This article contains references to sexual assault and recovery from traumatic events.
Many teenagers move through the world with a feeling of invincibility. With a few exceptions, teens who are still living in the care of their parents and within the family unit at home are sheltered from life’s harshest realities. While they might be preparing for college and the life they’ll live once they leave the nest, it usually takes a major life event to shake a teen out of their childhood bubble and welcome them to the realities of the real world.
For some, this might mean little-t traumas like getting fired from a job or going through a breakup, but for Carter Barnhart, it was something far more difficult.
When she was just 14, Barnhart was out at a concert with friends when she was sexually assaulted. Just like that, her life changed forever. Her innocence and childlike wonder shifted to a place of darkness, loneliness, and pain.
Barnhart comes from a strong family, and she is close with her parents and her brother, yet none of them could reach her. She didn’t tell them what happened to her, so she was facing depression, anxiety, and passive suicidal ideation all on her own.
“My parents spent countless years trying to find me the right treatment,” she says “And they eventually did when I was 17 years old, and it saved my life. After that, I became obsessed with helping other people and to make sure that everyone knew that treatment existed.”
Barnhart ended up in treatment at Newport Academy in California, which at the time was brand new. She tells me that she was the second patient there and the program changed her life. It was there, after meeting other young women who were also survivors, that she felt seen and began her recovery.
“The program was created for girls like me,” she says. “Who had intact, loving, supportive families…[who] had things that happened to them or had genetic factors, [who]had been bullied. I met so many different people from so many different walks of life in this residential treatment center, and for me, that was ultimately really what healed me.”
Barnhart doesn’t shy away from telling this story because it was the catalyst for the life she is currently living as the founder of Charlie Health. Recognizing an untapped category in the health care space, her company is about personalized mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families. Charlie Health wants to be a viable solution for the youth mental health crisis as it aims to deliver better outcomes to patients using proven medical techniques and technology at affordable prices for families.
“Senior year, I started at a brand-new high school and everyone I met, I told [my] story to,” she says. “It did not make me the most popular. People really thought I was kind of weird, but I wanted everyone to know that if they should struggle, there was help.”
After graduating, Barnhart reached out to the man who ran Newport Academy and over the next 11 years she helped him turn it into one of the leading residential treatment centers for adolescents and young adults recovering from trauma and abuse in the country.
Barnhart tells me that from the moment she left her recovery program, she felt that she wanted to be an advocate and beacon of hope for young people who have been through terrible things. For her own experience, Barnhart says the hardest part of the aftermath of her sexual assault was feeling alone.
“I think back to being that 14-year-old girl just in so much pain and so much fear, but my biggest feeling was that feeling of being alone,” she says. “Feeling like no one else understood me; feeling like I was never going to feel whole or OK again.”
Barnhart wants to make sure that anyone who has ever experienced trauma knows that treatment exists, and it can make all the difference.
It’s clear now that Barnhart is very comfortable talking about her trauma and advocating for others, which made me wonder why she didn’t feel like she could tell the people in her support system what had happened to her. She tells me that feelings of shame and fear took hold, and she wasn’t able to talk about it. She blamed herself, which she says is common with victims of sexual trauma. So even though she had always been expressive as a child, she didn’t feel like she could talk about this traumatic event with anyone.
“My parents knew that I was really just struggling. I think they were really confused,” she says. “They did not know [what I was going through], and we have a really close relationship, so it wasn’t that they didn’t try. I was really closed off with them and really closed off with everyone.”
Part of Barnhart’s work now is normalizing (for lack of a better word) the experience of having trauma. Making sure that people know that there is no shame in having been through a traumatic event and that help is there for them. She wants to fight for people even in times when they can’t fight for themselves.
“I’ve always been a fighter. I’ve never been a wallflower,” she says. “I remember my mom saying to me, Where’s my daughter? Where’s the fighter? Where’s that girl that I know wants to advocate for herself and for everyone? And that was actually the hardest piece that I lost in the beginning. Through my healing journey, I’m so grateful that I have that fight back in me.”
After years working at Newport, Barnhart realized that while the treatment they were offering was life-altering and in many cases life-saving, there was one flaw. They couldn’t reach enough people. There simply weren’t enough beds, and their services were cost-prohibitive for most families.
“Residential treatment, while it’s an amazing thing, is only available to one percent of the population,” she says. “And what we know is that somewhere between 10 million to 15 million kids struggle every single year with some sort of acute behavioral health issue and 90 percent of them don’t have access to even once-a-week-therapy, or any sort of evidence-based care that would help them recover. And so no matter how many residential treatment centers we built, we’re never going to have enough beds for the number of kids who really need access to care. My mission was to create something that was accessible and affordable and produce the same type of treatment outcomes.”
Barnhart wanted to find this way to offer specialized treatment to the masses, but it couldn’t just be offering online therapy at an affordable cost. Companies like BetterHelp and Talk Space already do that. Barnhart stands firm in believing that the key component for her recovery was meeting other girls just like her that made her feel like she wasn’t alone, she wasn’t broken, she wasn’t to blame. Cutting-edge therapy techniques like EMDR can really help reverse the damage of trauma, but the key component is having a community.
“I was with five other girls living in a house, for 45 days straight and we all started to talk about our life stories,” she says. “I remember my roommate too had her own experience with sexual trauma. She was telling me about it, and it was this moment of me [feeling] like, OK, I’m not alone. There’s someone else who’s been through something similar. On the outside [she] looked like me, I thought she was really pretty, I thought she was really cool. Superficially, it made me feel like, OK, if she’s been through this, I’m OK. It’s OK that I went through this too. And on a deeper emotional level, I had such tremendous respect for her that it helped me to respect myself.”
Rooming with this girl that she so admired made all the difference. Barnhart’s own life-saving experience showed her that, while therapy and therapeutic techniques make a huge difference, the key component was sharing the experience with others.
“I wanted to create a program that paired people together based on their shared experiences, and that’s what we’ve built at Charlie Health. It’s the first program that pairs people together based on their age, their primary diagnosis, their secondary diagnosis, but then also their maladaptive coping mechanisms, as well as their preferences.”
By creating this kind of program that functions remotely, Charlie Health can pair kids and teens together with others who have been through their same experiences and who are like them out in the world. They’re giving them a safe space and community with others who “get it.”
In addition to doing some pretty intense fundraising, and starting Charlie Health with a seed round of funding under a million dollars, Barnhart and her partners also used the pandemic to their benefit. They made the most out of Covid insurance waivers, where they’d get paid right away for virtual treatment. During that time, they were able to advocate for in-network contracts by showing the efficacy of their program.
Barnhart tells me that it’s taken a lot of work and she’s also had to duke it out with insurance companies over the last couple of years, but finally Charlie Health is available in-network for all major insurance providers.
As for their reputation, they’re still staking their place in the world of behavior health. Barnhart says the company has made a conscious decision not to publish how much money they’ve raised or how much money they’re worth because they want the company to be about what they do, not what they’re worth.
“It was a strategic decision that we made to not share our funding in a world where people are constantly sharing how much they raise…where people are constantly talking about their valuations. How many unicorn founders have we all read about? A lot! And I made the decision from the beginning that I did not want that to be what we are known as. And my two other co-founders and I have spent a lot of time talking about that.
“From a hiring standpoint, it would probably make it easier if people were able to Google Charlie Health and see how much money we’ve raised, but that is not what we want Charlie Health to be known as. It was a strategic decision for us to, instead, really spend the time investing in our clinical program. That’s what we want to be known for.”
More with Carter Barnhart here: