As Medical Director at the Phoenix House Academy in Los Angeles, Dr. Jonathan Whitfield makes determination of medical necessity at admission, treats psychiatric disorders of teens enrolled in adolescent treatment programs, and oversees the clients’ health issues along with a nurse manager and team. He works closely with the admissions department, residential staff, case managers, recovery specialists, and the team of family mental health therapist. He also oversees the Outpatient Drug Treatment Services for adolescents ages 12 to 20 at the Academy. We talked to Dr. Whitfield about his work and about his dog, a black and white terrier, Cooper.
PH: Let’s start with a little background information, what kind of experience do you have in this field, and how did you end up at Phoenix House?
JW: I actually got started at Phoenix House. While I was completing my addiction fellowship and child and adolescent trainings at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, I realized that it’d be a great opportunity for me to work with kids too, and not only adults. There aren’t many individuals in the field who specialize in both of those things. Shortly after that, I started coming in Phoenix House once a week as part of my clinical rotations. Later, one of the other doctors on site decided to leave, and I started coming in two or three times a week. When I was the only doctor left, I became the medical director of Phoenix House Academy. I oversee all of the medical issues. I work with the nurses, reinforcing policies and procedures for medical issues, and substance abuse treatment.
PH: Could you describe one of your typical workdays for us? What part of your job do you find most enjoyable?
JW: Well. Typical work day for me is mostly seeing patients; Cooper comes with me every day. Usually I start out the mornings by seeing the boys in the school area (LACOE). My office is near the school area, so I decided to start seeing the boys near the school area, so that there won’t be any interruptions while I meet with the girls later on the day. Most of my day is spent seeing the kids, or handling crisis that need to be addressed. I’m really sort of hands-on. Another part of my day is taking care of admissions. If a client has a history of being in a psychiatric hospital, or other severe mental health issues, I am expected to see the client on the day of admission. I like working with kids. I enjoy the one-on-one interaction; it’s a way that I get to spend the time with the kids. It’s for them, and Cooper too. Sometimes he’ll just jump right up, and the kids will pet him. Then, I get to hear about our clients’ pets and stories about them. He’s an immediate “ice breaker”. When kids hear that they’re going to meet the psychiatrist, they envision a guy that looks like the old typical psychiatrist.
PH: What would you like others to know about Phoenix House and our services?
JW: Well, I’d like people to know that first of all, we’re here and that we have a growing community presence. Also, we have multiple ways that we can help children and families struggling with addiction problems, not only through the residential program, but out-patient, and intensive out-patient program. I think that it’s clear that substance abuse has become more of a society wide problem. It begins earlier and earlier in the stages of life, and there’s plenty reasons for why kids get started, and we’re here to help.
PH: How did you get started in bringing in your dog to work with you?
JW: The academy actually had a dog on site by the name of “Phoenix.” Shortly after Phoenix passed, and I completed my fellowship, I got Cooper. Then, I thought to myself, “Why don’t I start bringing in my dog to work?” Everyone loved him right off the bat, and that’s how that got started.
PH: How long have you had Cooper?
JW: I’ve had Cooper for about eight years now, and that’s also how long he’s been coming in here at Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles.
PH: Does Cooper have any special training that allowed him to work with teens or be used in a therapeutic way?
JW: He actually doesn’t have any special training or licenses that would make him a therapy, or service dog. I’ve thought about doing that just in the case that it would be a problem. However, Cooper is such a well-behaved and gentle dog, that I never found it to be a problem, both here and at my other work site. He’s just really a people-person, and very playful.
PH: How do the residents get to spend time with Cooper?
JW: For the most part, clients get to spend time with Cooper when they come to my office. However, from time to time, some of the clients will knock on my office and ask if they can take him to the courtyard to play fetch with his favorite ball.
PH: How do the residents feel being around Cooper?
JW: I think it makes them feel more at home. It’s comforting to them, particularly to kids who have pets themselves. It’s one of the things our clients mention when they see Cooper. They’ll begin talking about their dogs, or I will start asking questions about their pets. You know, it’s just one of those things that remind you of home. Something that’s loving, and comforting. That’s how I think it’s therapeutic for the clients.
PH: How does Cooper enjoy coming to work with you?
JW: He absolutely loves it. I think he feels that this is his home away from home. He enjoys being around all the different people.
PH: What are Cooper’s most favorite things to do?
JW: Like most dogs, he loves playing with his favorite ball. Also, Cooper enjoys hiding behind bushes, waits for squirrels to come down the trees, and then goes chasing after them. He spends a lot of time out in the courtyard near my office.
PH: What are Cooper’s most favorite foods or snacks?
JW: I keep a handful of snacks and treats here in the office for him. At home, Cooper gets a home-made dinner every night. At the beginning of the week, I’ll buy a roasted chicken from Gelson’s, and prepare his meals with a variety of low-sodium vegetables, and pinto beans.
PH: Has your dog been used elsewhere in therapeutic or stress-relieving ways?
JW: Cooper tags along everywhere I go. Besides from Phoenix House, he comes into my private practice as well and interacts with my clients and their families.
PH: Is there anything else you would like for us to know?
JW: Knowing that there are a handful of treatment centers that incorporate animal therapy, I have realized that this is something we need to further utilize in a more official level. Incorporating animals into clinical practices sounds like a rather interesting project.
More about Dr. Jonathan Whitfield
Dr. Whitfield is a Board-certified Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist who has served as Medical Director at Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles in Lake View Terrace since 2004, while simultaneously working in his private practice in Encino, offering psychiatric services to children, adolescents, adults and their families. He completed his medical studies at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago in 1997 and his General Psychiatry Residency at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA (in 2001), having served as the Chief Resident in the General Psychiatry Residency Training Program in the last year of his residency.
In 2001-2004 he completed two Psychiatric Fellowships, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Fellowship (2003) and Addiction Medicine Psychiatric Fellowship (2004) at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Prior to taking the leadership position at Phoenix House Academy, Dr. Whitfield served as Psychiatrist at the Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic (2002-2006).
As Medical Director, Dr. Whitfield makes determination of medical necessity at admission, treats psychiatric disorders of teens enrolled in adolescent treatment programs, and oversees the clients’ health issues along with a nurse manager and team. He works closely with the admissions department, residential staff, case managers, recovery specialists, and the team of family mental health therapist. He also oversees the Outpatient Drug Treatment Services for adolescents ages 12 to 20 at the Academy.
For more information about our substance abuse and mental health treatment programs, or to refer someone in need for admission to our residential or outpatient services for teens with co-occurring disorders at the Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles, please call our Call Center at 1 888 671 9392. We are here to help you find the information and services you need!