Dr. Lee Spencer is a psychiatrist working in Dallas, Texas. He graduated from Tulane University School of Medicine, completed his psychiatry residency at Johns Hopkins University, and completed a 1-year fellowship in addiction psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Dr. Spencer served as the medical director for chemical dependency treatment at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas. He currently works in private practice in Dallas while also serving as an assistant professor of psychiatry at UTSW. Dr. Spencer is a psychiatric consultant for Luna Recovery Services.

Recently, we got the opportunity to chat with Dr. Spencer, and we thought you might enjoy getting to know a little about him. Our conversation was fun and casual, but we got into deep and important waters. We covered things like his journey to psychiatry and his passion for working with folks who struggle with substance use, his belief in the importance of psychotherapy, what he’d tell a new patient who was seeking help, and some thoughts about the pandemic’s impact on the state of mental health. Dr. Spencer also gave a little advice to those of us working in the clinical field.

Dr. Spencer has healing and helping in his veins. His mother is a therapist, his father was a priest, his stepmother is a physician, and his stepfather was a professor of medicine. He enjoyed science in school but loved the humanities as well. Becoming a doctor seemed like the best way to combine them. 

He may have known he wanted to be a medical doctor, but he didn’t always know he wanted to be a psychiatrist. In fact, he fought against it a little bit. He wanted to be a surgeon when he started out, practice a hard science, something clear cut. He said, “it was hard to make the decision [to go into psychiatry], but I finally just had to accept that it’s what I was passionate about – what I felt the most comfortable with. The patients I enjoyed seeing the most were those struggling with psychiatric issues.” He’s still passionate about the work that he does, and that’s clear when he talks about it.

Let’s take a closer look at:

His thoughts on working with addicts:

“I think what draws me in is that there’s a little bit of conflict of wills that you get into. There’s a tension… Some people are turned off by that; they don’t like it because it’s uncomfortable when we have to confront things, but it’s also part of the inherent beauty that I’ve come to appreciate [with patients with substance use disorders].” 

“I’ve learned to find beauty in the conflict, and I’ve come to like that it’s not just “here’s a medicine, and you’re gonna feel better.” There’s more involved, and it’s more dynamic; I like that part of it.”

“What I see with addicts is a difficulty accepting that a part of them is at war with another part of themselves. Our job is to help them see that and to help them realize that we can see past it; we can join them in trying to see a larger picture of what’s going on.”  

“There’s this transparency…I feel like they’re more honest [than most people] about needing help. They’re more authentic.”

“The other reason I like working in addiction is that people can get better. People get so much better. People can make drastic changes to their life. You see people do 180-degree changes to their trajectory. That’s something neat to be a part of.”

Why he practices psychotherapy and not just medication management:

“I don’t think it’s possible to do much addiction work, really, to me honestly, any mental health work unless there’s some psychotherapy component. That’s part of what attracted me to substance use – that it’s not just a pill that you can prescribe and check back in a month. It’s not that straightforward. It’s not that simple. People are more complex than that, and I just feel like, in order to really address individual needs, you really have to get down and figure out what else is going on. Addiction is multi-faceted. That’s what I find fascinating, but I don’t feel you can really help folks unless you’re willing to do some therapy.”

What’s important for someone struggling with addiction to receive:

“I think more than anything they need hope. They need to know there’s some kind of solution – that there’s a way out. There’s a way they can feel better. This doesn’t have to last forever. Change is possible…we can figure it out together.”

“And also just empathizing with what they’re going through. To have someone listen to them and identify with what they’re going through and just..listen. Listen to them with an open ear and not automatically tell them what the answer is.  Just listen and unwind it and understand it. They haven’t had somebody do that.  That’s the most important part of taking their history [during the first session] – it’s about learning what they’re bringing to the problem. Showing that they’re unique but that they have a common problem that can be dealt with.”

The pandemic’s impact on mental health:

“It’s made mental health conditions worse. It’s made substance abuse worse, there have been more overdoses, more suicides. It’s awful, but on the other hand, it’s brought more awareness to mental health. Publicly but also privately.  More patients are coming in. It’s made issues more acute. I think it’s bringing more people to treatment. I think there are positives to that – that it’s swinging the pendulum toward more awareness…I’m hopeful for the future that some of the awareness will help folks with addressing issues earlier, being more willing to come into treatment, being more honest about their anxieties and also substance abuse.”

“It’s made us aware of how important human connection is, and I don’t think we were really aware of that until it was taken away from us. Many people have said that connection is the opposite of addiction and that lack of connection is the presence of addiction. I think our patients suffered as a result of the isolation.”

“I’m hopeful for the clinical practice. I hope that it will help broaden our understanding of mental health and human connection and that it makes us more willing to do these Zoom conversations and have a broader idea of how we practice. I think [the need to approach work differently, like using telehealth] makes us more diverse in how we practice, which is probably something we needed. We’ve gotten better access, which is good  We need that.”

And a little advice to clinicians:

“It’s okay to listen and not have a solution for everying. I find that more of my patients benefit from having someone listen and be non-judgmental and open. Listen. Be a support. I think we can do a better job of that in the treatment world – a better job of listening and not just pronouncing.”

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Dr. Lee Spencer has dedicated himself to helping those who struggle with addiction and mental health issues. He works with Luna Recovery Services to offer patients the multi-faceted care they need and deserve. He is clearly passionate about his work. Dr. Spencer thrives in the complexity of addiction psychiatry, but it isn’t just unwinding a complex problem that keeps him going.  He truly cares about the individuals that he works with. He wants to join them in their journey and does so by offering empathy, understanding, an open ear, and yes, medication when it’s necessary.

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