Walk into the offices of Southeast Psych in Charlotte, and you’re greeted by life-size figures of Darth Vader in black cape and an Imperial Stormtrooper in gleaming white armor.
Instead of pastoral landscapes, posters from Batman, Iron Man and Superman movies line the hallways. Outside each office hangs a caricature of the superhero that bests reflects the therapist inside.
How did a psychology practice end up looking like this?
“We wanted it to feel different,” said Southeast Psych co-founder Dave Verhaagen. “Everybody here buys into the idea that we want this to be a fun place where psychology is accessible to people.”
The group is based on a “positive psychology” approach. It focuses on “strength and resiliency and building on what’s right with people rather than what’s wrong with them,” Verhaagen said.
Positive psychology is widely accepted by traditional therapists. But Verhaagen and his co-founder Frank Gaskill have given Southeast Psych a twist with a heavy dose of pop culture.
In July, they took their message to San Diego for Comic-Con, the huge annual gathering for fans of comic books, video games and movies.
The name of their panel: “Geek Therapy: How Superheroes Empower All of Us.”
Gaskill used his own comic book, “Max Gamer,” about a superhero with Asperger’s, to describe how he helps clients with that mild form of autism.
“It’s a great comic book for anyone who is an ‘Aspie’ or needs a reminder that there is a superhero in each of us,” Gaskill said. “I want all of these kids who feel different and awkward to feel awesome.”
Southeast Psych’s superhero vibe is viewed by some therapists as “trivializing” psychology.
But clients – who pay cash because Southeast Psych doesn’t accept insurance – say it’s worth it.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever found that works for my son,” said Gail Gillies, whose son, William Timmes, 15, is one of Gaskill’s clients.
“We’ve had experiences with other counselors … and it’s not always been positive,” Gillies said. “I saw a huge turnaround in my son’s demeanor. He’s a happier person. Once he joined Dr. G’s group, he became one of the ‘cool guys.’ ”
Friends liked positive spin
Verhaagen, 49, and Gaskill, 44, have been friends since 1987, as psychology students at UNC Chapel Hill.
They were working together in Charlotte in 2000, when their former group disbanded and they opened their own.
Both are fans of Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania educator who led the movement for “positive psychology.”
So they based Southeast Psych on that idea and recruited partners who share their vision. Today, with 32 therapists in two locations, they have one of the largest psychology groups in North Carolina.
Southeast Psych accepts clients with a wide variety of emotional and behavioral problems. But in keeping with the positive psychology focus, it has divisions on supporting healthy lifestyles and enhancing sports performance.
Focus on boys, young men
Verhaagen and Gaskill specialize in helping boys and young men. They liked the superhero theme and thought their clients would, too.
To get their message to the public, they produce videos – including “The Dr. G Aspie Show” – in their own recording studio at the SouthPark office.
Verhaagen calls himself the “dad” of the practice, responsible for “the big picture.” Gaskill focuses on the staff.
“I’m the mom,” Gaskill said. “I try to take care of everybody.”
When showing a visitor around, he’s lavish with praise and superlatives.
“She’s a rock star,” Gaskill said of one new therapist.
“She’s a total rock star,” he said of another.
He uses “awesome” more often than most teenagers.
Verhaagen and Gaskill tease each other like kid brothers, and enjoy crazy stunts.
Several years ago, for the Charlotte premiere of “Star Wars: Episode III,” Gaskill dressed as Darth Vader and waved his light saber while standing in Verhaagen’s “Galactic” blue Volkswagen convertible, as Verhaagen drove around the cinema parking lot with the “The Empire Strikes Back” theme blasting.
“It was epic,” Gaskill said.
Southeast Psych is cited as a national model by Steven Walfish, president of the American Psychological Association’s division on independent practice.
“I know a lot about private practice,” said Walfish, an Atlanta psychologist. “Southeast Psych is the most creative, innovative and best-run practice I’ve ever known.”
Josué Cardona, a self-described “geek therapist,” is also an admirer.
After meeting psychologists at Southeast Psych, Cardona, 29, was inspired to adopt a similar approach when he moved to Charlotte three years ago to work for a different group.
It was Cardona’s proposal for a “Geek Therapy” panel that was accepted by Comic-Con, and he invited Verhaagen and Gaskill to join him.
“A lot of people identify as geeks,” Cardona said. “You can be a sports geek, a tech geek, a fashion geek, a politics geek. It’s all about how much you love whatever it is that you love and using it as a path to healing or improving your life.”
Not all psychologists agree with Southeast Psych’s approach.
“They have a style of doing things that I would not be comfortable with,” said John Simpson, a psychologist with Presbyterian Psychological Services in Charlotte.
“In order to sell their practice, they trivialize a lot of what is very important,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re bad at what they do. But they spend as much time selling as they do delivering.”
Because Southeast Psych doesn’t accept insurance, its therapists are out of reach for many people, Simpson said.
Presbyterian Psychological accepts insurance reimbursement of $60 to $80 an hour, Simpson said. Southeast Psych charges $160 for a psychologist with a doctorate and $150 for one with a master’s.
Verhaagen said he and Gaskill do offer discounts for clients in financial need. “We have something that is very high quality, and people are willing to pay out-of-pocket for things they see value in.”
Verhaagen isn’t fazed by critics. “When you’re doing something different, the greatest pushback you’re going to get is from people in the field … . I wouldn’t be surprised to have people saying, ‘What are they doing over there?’ But we’re OK with that.”
Working in ‘fantasyland’
Of all the offices at Southeast Psych, Gaskill’s is the most unusual, reflecting his obsession with “Star Wars.”
He’s seen the original movie (“Episode IV”) more than 400 times, and his space is filled with paraphernalia, including a 30-inch-tall model of the Imperial Shuttle built from a $400 Lego kit.
His office is a “fantasyland” for his clients with Asperger’s. “The rapport between us is just immediate,” he said. “I’m essentially an 11-year-old.”
Gaskill chose his specialty because his father and grandfather had Asperger’s long before it got a name in 1993. Even without the diagnosis, he said they had the characteristics – superior intelligence, obsessive behavior and difficulty reading social situations.
When working with clients, Gaskill enjoys reeling off names of well-known people who have – or are thought to have – Asperger’s: Dan Aykroyd, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Beethoven and Mozart.
It’s all part of focusing on what’s right instead of what’s wrong.
“Without our ‘super Aspies,’ we would not have rockets, computers, the Declaration of Independence or even the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson,” Gaskill said. “He never combed his hair and walked around town with a bird on his shoulder all the time, but he was an awesome president.”
Managing video games
When Gaskill’s clients share their obsessions with video games, he talks about his own ways of managing.
“I play on Monday and Thursday nights,” he said. “I put boundaries around it so it doesn’t take over my life.”
And an obsession with video games isn’t all bad, he adds. “A lot of my guys become engineers, software designers, meteorologists.”
Parents say they appreciate Gaskill’s approach.
“He’s taught us to celebrate Asperger’s and be proud of it,” said Julie Richards, whose son Taylor, 13, is one of Gaskill’s clients.
Through a therapy group called “Aspies on the Go,” Taylor has made new friends and learned to navigate the “real world,” Richards said. Under supervision, the boys hang out at the mall and practice ordering food and looking waiters in the eye.
Richards could tell she’d found the right therapist when, at the first appointment, Gaskill spoke these words to her son:
“See your mom? She’s average, normal, boring.
“You have a superhero brain.”
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