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Dr. Robert Wingfield - Behavioral Health Clinic 25th Anniversary Inside Look

November 15th, 2019     By Boys Town Contributor

Behavior, Boys Town History, Bully, Harmful Behaviors, Healing Families, Mental Health, Quality Care, Understanding Behavior

Love of psychology led to remarkable opportunities for behavioral health clinic director

There was no "aha" moment when Dr. Robert Wingfield realized psychology was his calling. Rather, there was a series of seemingly ordinary childhood experiences that, upon reflection, made his career choice seem almost preordained.  

The son of a pastor, Dr. Wingfield was raised in the shadow of the nation's capital. As a young boy, he often overheard his father offering encouragement, support and prayers to parishioners. He witnessed his mom dutifully helping the congregation and the larger community, too. Their example was an inspiration.

"Without much thinking, I just started mimicking what I saw," explained Dr. Wingfield. "Just being helpful and believing that it was normal to serve."       

Growing up in a home where service to others was practiced as often as it was preached, it's no surprise that his educational pursuits led him to a healing profession. His interest in psychology began in high school and only deepened in his undergrad years at McDaniel College, a small liberal arts school in suburban Baltimore.  

"Social psychology was actually my favorite subject in undergrad and graduate school. Just being able to understand behavior and putting together interpretations as to why people make decisions intrigued me. I kind of fell in love with it at that point."

A friend's influence

After earning his master's degree, Dr. Wingfield pursued his doctorate at the University of Florida. There he met fellow Ph.D. student Jason Gallant, who would eventually go on to complete both his pre- and post-doctoral training at the Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health and then direct the outpatient behavioral health clinic at Boys Town Central Florida.

Gallant urged his friend to go to Nebraska and "check out the special stuff" happening at the Center. Dr. Wingfield heeded the advice and arrived on campus in 2012 to begin his internship.

"It was a dynamic experience. That year was my biggest growth as a psychologist. The constant training, the constant learning and the constant feedback loop on performance overwhelmed me at first. But right around the third month, I began to really appreciate and look forward to it. I could never anticipate growing in 12 months as much as I did."

Building something new

Following his internship, Dr. Wingfield returned to Maryland and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. A few years later, he learned of Boys Town's plan to create a behavioral health clinic at the Washington, D.C. site. He gladly accepted the director's position and launched the clinic in the fall of 2015.

"When you see a successful organization, you just want to be part of it in a way. I view Boys Town as an elite organization with a dynamic behavioral health center, and I was proud to come back."

Building a behavioral health clinic from the ground up was daunting and not without its challenges. Everything from getting credentialed with insurance companies to setting up basic business operations, such as answering phones and managing budgets, had to get done. What proved easier, according to Dr. Wingfield, was attracting people to use the clinic.

"Because of my Boys Town training, I knew what families needed and knew how to connect with a wide range of populations. Families told me I was different from other clinicians at other organizations, and they wanted to stick with me."

And stick with him they did. What started as a one-man operation in 2015 serving approximately 150 families in the first 12 months, has grown to include five psychologists serving several hundred families. Dr. Wingfield attributes much of this success to his Boys Town internship, where he was taught to look at the whole person, not just a single referral issue or concern, and make personal connections.  

Dr. Wingfield also credits the Boys Town Model® for providing a framework that is life-changing and transformative for everyone involved in a child's life.   

"Family members can experience just as many improvements to their behavioral and emotional well-being as the child because the Model requires their involvement. There's this secondary effect when they learn the behavior-modification techniques. Caregivers start feeling empowered, and as their child's issues improve, they experience less anxiety and feel more optimistic."

Seeing yourself in another person

Feeling hopeful and comfortable with a therapist is not a given, and this can be especially true for members of minority populations. For some children and families at the clinic, their motivation to seek therapy and complete treatment was based, in part, on the fact that Dr. Wingfield looked like them.

According to a statistic from the American Psychological Association, less than five percent of psychologists identify as black or African American. For families who too often feel marginalized or invisible, seeing a person of color can be enough for them to lower their defenses and dive into treatment.

"Not every child or family sees race as a variable that is relevant," said Dr. Wingfield. "But for those who have limited contact or dissatisfying past experiences with people not like them, it can matter a lot. It's gratifying to be able to help these individuals feel more comfortable and facilitate their therapy."

It's also an opportunity for Dr. Wingfield to encourage more openness and acceptance, too.

"I have wonderful and talented colleagues working at the clinic, and we don't all look the same. I tell families not to let a racial or gender difference stop them from therapy. When they're willing to let their guard down, they often end up having really positive experiences."  

As for the future, Dr. Wingfield wants to continue to strengthen the spirit of collaboration that was a cornerstone of his Boys Town training. Recently, he led a "burnout prevention and compassion fatigue" workshop for Boys Town Family-Teachers® and In-Home Family Consultants. It was a special opportunity to share the clinic's expertise for the benefit of the wider organization.         

"At Boys Town, there are always opportunities to positively affect and enrich other programs, and I'm proud to be able to build those connections."   

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