The Therapeutic Community Program at Riggs: Staff Profile on Spencer Biel, PsyD



Spencer Biel, PsyD is the Associate Director of the Therapeutic Community Program at the Austen Riggs CenterAs an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont, Spencer Biel, PsyD, did not imagine he would become a therapist; “I took a circuitous route,” he says, first graduating as a philosophy major with an art history minor, then studying cooking in France and working for a time in New York City as a line cook. 

He felt like something was missing and remarks, “I realized that I still loved philosophy and was interested in how I might apply my studies through a tangible contribution to my surrounding community.” As a result, he enrolled in a master’s program in philosophy and social policy at American University.  During this time, two things coincided that led him to consider becoming a therapist. First, Biel went into therapy himself for the first time. As he recalls, “I felt uncertainty about my life direction and had interest in carving out some space to be with myself in the presence of another other person, together trying to make some sense of what was in my mind; I found that process captivating and rewarding.”

Second, Biel began reading Freud in his master’s program and started to wonder about whether becoming a therapist was a path he wanted to pursue. Curiosity led him to take advantage of the opportunity to audit a few courses in George Washington University’s PsyD program. He “loved it,” applied and was accepted. As he began to see patients during his studies, he says “I took to it in a way that made clear for me pretty quickly that this was a good fit.” 

As he was finishing up his PsyD, Biel notes, “I wanted more training, particularly as a therapist, and the Fellowship at Riggs immediately came to mind. Doing psychological testing, group work, individual psychotherapy, and interfacing with patients less formally – that range of activities appealed to me greatly.” In addition, the notion of “studying the individual in context” was a big draw for Biel, who explains, “Attention to familial and social contexts for the trouble that an individual is having seemed essential to learn more about.”

That was 10 years ago. Hired as a staff psychologist after completing his Fellowship, Biel continued to be involved in the Therapeutic Community Program (TCP), gradually increasing the scope of his responsibilities. This led to him recently applying for and receiving the new position of Associate Director of the Therapeutic Community Program. In his new role, Biel will continue doing many of the things he has done in the past, including consulting to groups, managing the process group subsystem, overseeing Fellows’ training in the TCP and consulting to the Task group, where patients have an opportunity to examine and provide “remarkably straightforward and respectful” feedback, often about problematic behavior in the community. In addition his responsibilities will broaden to include: 

  • supervising the Inn Residential Program (IRP) group facilitators; 
  • supervising the program managers in Riggs’ step-down continuum of care and thinking about the step-down programs in the context of Riggs as a whole; and
  • orienting new staff members to the TCP.

“I am eager to deepen my involvement in the TCP, and I find myself drawing on my background in philosophy and social policy as I join others in ongoing efforts to not only study social dynamics, but also to see how our learning can be applied both in the Riggs community and beyond,” says Biel.

Check back next week to read about the Patient Government embedded in the Therapeutic Community Program at Riggs. 

The Therapeutic Community Program at Riggs: Overview and History

The Therapeutic Community Program at Riggs: New Health and Wellness Program for Patients


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