It’s easy to tell that psychologists Dave Verhaagen, Ph.D, ABPP, and Frank Gaskill, Ph.D. are longtime friends. They bounce good-natured jokes off each other and easily fall into the comfortable shtick only developed over years of association.
In fact, their friendship dates back to their years studying psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when Verhaagen was a graduate student and Gaskill still an undergrad.
As co-founders of Southeast Psych, the two have managed to bring the ease and fun of their friendship into their practice. Their SouthPark area office has become well-known around town for its pop culture feel with a waiting room more like a family room, complete with video games and comfy chairs; and hallways dotted with movie posters and superhero caricatures of each therapist outside their office door.
All About FIRE
A quick turn down a hallway could also bring you face to face with a life-size Darth Vader, Batman or Wonder Woman figure. The atmosphere brings a smile to many clients who might otherwise be anxious or uncomfortable going to the businesslike offices of typical psychologists. And it’s especially attractive to the many children and adolescents Southeast Psych serves.
That’s the point according to Verhaagen. “Frank and I were part of another practice when we decided to start Southeast Psych 14 years ago,” he says. “The traditional practice is kind of dry and sterile and a little uptight.
“We decided we wanted to do something different. We wanted a place that was fun and accessible and that was doing really innovative things. So from the beginning, we embedded our values into the culture.”
The core values guiding and shaping the actions and culture of Southeast Psych are represented by the acronym FIRE—fun, innovation, relationships and excellence.
“We can joke and laugh and act ridiculous,” explains Gaskill, “and those kinds of things make treatment more relational, personal, accessible and more relevant in people’s everyday lives. But what’s underneath all of that is the ‘meat and potatoes’ of what works in psychology.”
“It’s not just putting on a show,” adds Verhaagen. “We provide cognitive behavioral therapy, DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) and traditional marriage and family therapies—all of which are grounded in empirical research and best practices.”
With offices in SouthPark and Blakeney and over 30 clinicians, the practice is one of the largest in the state. While it’s clear the practice is popular, pinning down an exact number of patients seen per month is a little more elusive.
“We have anywhere from 20 to 25 groups each week of about six clients,” explains Gaskill. “For individual therapy, our more established clinicians see between 28 and 32 people a week, while our newer clinicians are in the 15 to 18 person range.”
“Any given week I see about 30 people,” says Verhaagen, “but in terms of who’s an active client, it’s harder to know. I just got an email from someone I hadn’t seen in months who asked to book a time, so, you see, it can be hard to measure. It’s a lot. We see a lot of people.”
In addition to their current client load, on average, the practice receives more than 200 referrals a month. Referrals can come from other health care providers but often, “it’s a friend of a client,” says Gaskill.
What Makes You Tick?
By intent, Southeast Psych uses a positive psychology approach toward treatment. “We focus more on what’s right with people and enhancing their lives,” explains Verhaagen.
“Broadly, there is a wave of psychology that’s moving in that direction in terms of what’s being written but it’s not translating down to the local level a lot. We’re one of the few places currently that has that tone and vibe about it.”
Because of its unique atmosphere and approach, Verhaagen and Gaskill have specific criteria for the clinicians in the practice. “We ask if the person is a good fit for us culturally,” says Gaskill. “That’s very important and they must know their stuff. But we’ve moved more to an ‘expert model’ where a clinician really knows a particular field—maybe sleep or Asperger’s—and can become the expert in that area for the practice.
“Our clinicians want to build a relationship with the Charlotte community and beyond, that connects with their interests as a psychologist—and as they niche into what they love, it becomes their specialty. We want to be the ‘purple cow’; the one that stands out as an expert in that particular area.”
This focus on expertise in specific specialties allows Southeast Psych to offer therapies far beyond the scope of traditional practices. Treatment for typically-seen issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse and relationships co-exist with therapies covering parenting, body image, career counseling, sleep difficulties and sports performance, to name just a few.
Several focus areas have become specialty brands for the practice. “Food Wise” concentrates on overcoming eating obstacles such as eating disorders, obesity and picky eating. “Mind Over Body” uses sports and clinical psychology to help athletes maximize mental and physical performance. “Mind Matters” provides practical strategies to promote learning success. “Rest Assured” assesses sleep disturbances with the goal of improving sleep quality. And “Wise Minds” uses DBT to help people to better manage their emotions for improved relationships.
The Superhero Aspies
Gaskill, who has become an internationally known voice for Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of autism, is currently developing a specialty brand specifically for autism.
The spectrum of Asperger’s is large but it is typically characterized by high intelligence, obsessive focus and difficulty in interpersonal relationships, often leaving those affected feeling different and like outsiders.
“People with Asperger’s can feel like they were dropped off from a spaceship,” says Gaskill, whose grandfather and father were likely Asperger’s before the syndrome even had a name. “I’ve taken it on as a personal mission to celebrate Asperger’s kids and their special strengths.”
“‘Aspies’ are Awesome” has become a Gaskill tagline and it appears to resonate with patients. Julie Richards’ 13-year-old son Taylor had worked with other therapists before receiving an Asperger’s diagnosis from Southeast Psych three years ago. She said the positive way in which the syndrome was explained had a tremendous impact on Taylor.
“When Dr. Gaskill told Taylor he had Asperger’s,” Richards explains, “he did it in a way that said ‘You’ve won the lottery; you’ve got this phenomenal brain.’ He told my son that there would be challenges, but that there were also so many positive things, and he named all these famous people who have Asperger’s and all they’ve accomplished.”
Along with private sessions, Taylor participates in several groups Southeast Psych offers for Asperger’s children that focus on learning social skills and applying those skills in real world settings.
“In the group ‘Aspies on the Go,’ the boys went to restaurants and to hang out at the mall,” Richards explains. “They even went through the exercise of applying for a job at Caribou Coffee. But what has made him happiest at Southeast Psych is his new group of friends and that he now has an identity. He’s proud to have Asperger’s.”
Gaskill is happy to be part of creating what he believes is an emerging hub for positive Asperger’s treatment in Charlotte, citing also The Epiphany School of Charlotte geared toward educating Asperger’s children from first through eighth grade. But Gaskill’s mission to help those with Asperger’s extends far beyond the office he shares with his large collection of Star Wars memorabilia. His “World of Asperger’s” video series can be accessed through YouTube or on Southeast Psych’s website and is also available in Arabic.
“There’s a woman in Baghdad who’s an ‘Aspie’ and who has an autistic son and an ‘Aspie’ son,” Gaskill says. “She started following the show and now she translates the videos into Arabic for us.”
Gaskill also reaches out to Asperger’s kids with his comic book, “Max Gamer.” Co-written with Ryan Kelly, the comic tells the tale of an Asperger’s boy who uses his Asperger’s traits in superhero fashion to rescue his sister. The second in the series, “Max II, The Rise of the Bully,” is expected to be released early next year.
Gaskill also uses Twitter to share information. Currently, 4,227 people follow him @Drfgaskill. But Southeast Psych’s efforts to reach out are not limited to only Asperger’s patients. A central mission of the practice is what they term “Psychology for All.”
“We believe that psychology can enhance people’s lives,” explains Verhaagen, “that when people gain access to psychology, that they can use it as a tool to make their lives better. And we also understand that therapy is expensive and it isn’t within every family’s financial reach, so our mission became to get psychology to as many people as possible.
“We had to go beyond what we ordinarily do like testing, consultation and therapy so we started several initiatives. We created a studio in the office to produce a video channel, we started an in-house publishing company and a speaking arm that could get this information out into the community.”
Today, Southeast Psych Studios produces free and informative videos like “The Dr. G. ‘Aspie’ Show,” “Enhance!”, “The Psych Mom” and the “Mind Matters Learning Channel.” Hero House Publishing produces both non-fiction and fiction books related to enhancing the understanding of psychological issues. And the practice’s Super Speakers holds free talks on a wide range of topics for schools, organizations and the community as a whole.
“We’ve done over 100 talks to the community this past year,” says Verhaagen. “They’re available to anyone and they’re all free.”
“Recently, we decided we were going to take a day and offer a free conference,” adds Gaskill. “We had 20 different tracks. Each hour we offered four tracks for the five hour day. Over 200 people showed up.
“One of the biggest issues in mental health care today is access. We’re trying to be part of the dialogue to address that issue. Through printed material, through videos, through community talks, all of it is to fulfill the mission of getting psychology out to the people.”
Verhaagen and Gaskill are also trying to get a message out to other health care professionals. In addition to Gaskill’s “Max Gamer” series and the six books Verhaagen has authored, the two are currently working on a book to guide other health care professionals in creating their own dream practice.
“It’s a book for people who are in mental health or health care in general who want to create something different and new,” Gaskill says.
“Our idea is not for others to be like us but to create a mission and value-driven practice,” explains Verhaagen. “Figure out what you’re passionate about and construct that.”
Along with the “Your Dream Practice” book, the pair has a video on the subject at yourdreampractice.com and also does some consulting with practices interested in this approach around the country.
Recently, Verhaagen and Gaskill became involved with a unique documentary. The not-for-profit film, “Legend of the Knight,” tells how the resonance of the story of Batman has impacted people, helping them overcome struggles and motivating them to think differently about themselves and their lives.
Verhaagen and Gaskill were originally contacted for an interview, clips of which are included in the documentary, but ended up signing on as executive producers of the project. The documentary will be aired locally on March 6, 2014, at the EpiCentre.
In the meantime, they’ll be going through the office storage room. An email from a staff member says it must be done by Friday and specifically mentions needing to clean out the puppets.
“Not the puppets!” Verhaagen jokes.
“I guess that means I’ll have to move out my Star Wars commemorative plates,” is Gaskill’s comeback.