The Fourth Annual Dr. Richard C. Christensen Memorial Advocacy Day took place this past Friday on April 26. This year’s featured speakers were Richard Doan, MD, an Assistant Professor in Adult Psychiatry and Health Systems at the University of Toronto, and Ana Turner, MD, an Assistant Professor, Community Psychiatrist, and Consult Liaison Psychiatrist at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine. Together, they presented “Both Sides Now: Psychiatry Street Outreach Across the Border.”
Dr. Richard C. Christensen was a community psychiatrist and a professor at the University of Florida. Tragically, his life was cut short in November 2015 when he was hit by a motor vehicle while out for a morning run. On that fateful day, he was doing what he did best — serving others. He had traveled to the nation of Zambia to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity International. Closer to home, Dr. C., as he was affectionately known by many, worked in underserved communities in Florida. His community psychiatry practice took him out of the clinic and onto the streets, where he cared for people with mental illness who were homeless. “He was incredibly compassionate, and he dedicated his work and his life and his career to taking care of the homeless,” said Dr. Jacqueline Hobbs, Vice Chair for Education in the UF Department of Psychiatry. “I always say he’s an angel. He was just an amazing human being, and I miss him terribly.”
A pioneer of “street psychiatry,” Dr. Christensen worked at Jacksonville’s Sulzbacher Center, which provides services for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. There he served as director of Behavioral Health Services and worked on the “HOPE team,” riding around town so he could treat people where they were. He was the medical director for a federally funded initiative to treat people who were chronically homeless and who had co-occurring disorders, and he also developed an integrated psychiatry-primary care initiative based at UF Health. An accomplished teacher, he was a professor of psychiatry in the UF Department of Psychiatry, twice — in 1996, and posthumously in 2016 — earning the Hippocratic Award conferred by UF College of Medicine graduating students to a faculty member who, to them, represents the ideals of what a physician should be. Dr. Christensen also earned the UF College of Medicine Exemplary Teacher Award in 2011, 2012 and 2013. He was a prolific researcher, publishing more than 100 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and reviews.
Coalitions of Dr. Christensen’s friends, family, colleagues, former students, and former patients have banded together to create a number of projects to honor his legacy. These include, but are not limited to, a clinical handbook of his articles called the “PEARLS,” an peer-reviewed ethics curriculum grounded on his articles, a teaching website in progress (christensen-project.psychiatry.ufl.edu), a Habitat for Humanity build, a memorial tree planting, a community psychiatry fellowship, a memorial scholarship, and the annual Advocacy Day.
In 2016, the first Advocacy Day speaker, Dr. Kim Mueser, Executive Director for the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, gave a lecture on “Illness Management and Recovery: An Introduction and Research Update” following the reception. On Advocacy Day two years ago, Dr. Sheryl Fleisch, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University, delivered the memorial lecture and psychiatry grand rounds. She spoke of how she had been inspired by Christensen’s humanitarian work and mentorship to start the Vanderbilt Street Psychiatry program to treat homeless people with mental illnesses in their own environments. She also helped create a network to provide outpatient care, medication and housing for patients without stable homes living with mental illness. In 2018, Dr. John Kern, a clinical professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behaviroal Sciences at the University of Washington, spoke about the training and implementation of integrated psychiatric and primary care services, an area where he has been an innovator for nearly ten years.
This year’s Advocacy Day began with a breakfast and discussion at GRACE Marketplace between mental health professionals, community leaders, staff at GRACE, and residents of GRACE. Since opening in 2014, GRACE Marketplace has been a shelter and service center for homeless individuals in the Gainesville area. Residents of GRACE were able to share their perspective about what their experiences with homelessness and accessing homelessness services.
After this breakfast and before the Grand Rounds presentation, UF Psychiatry facilitated a manna bags construction workshop. Manna bags have been constructed at every Advocacy Day and then given to Helping Hands Clinic, which provides healthcare to people in poverty in Gainesville. Manna bags contain necessities that ease the difficulties of living on the street, like sunscreen, hair ties, snacks, water bottles, toothpaste, and more. Each bag included a Gainesville Street Card provided by the North Central Florida Coalition for the Homeless, which gives information about accessing services in Gainesville. Many people who make manna bags keep them on hand to distribute to people they may meet and ask for help on the street.
Carol Lewis, PhD, a professor with the University of Florida Department of Psychiatry, led the audience in a brief mindfulness meditation before the Grand Rounds presentation. The University of Florida Psychiatry Department offers mindfulness mediations every Thursday for faculty and staff.
The Grand Rounds presentation offered a case of two twins who lived on separate sides of the border: one in Toronto, Canada, and one in Jacksonville, Florida. Dr. Doan described how the Canadian twin accessed homelessness services in Toronto, while Dr. Turner explained the process in Jacksonville. Throughout, Dr. Doan and Dr. Turner played “name that tune” with the audience, playing clips of music by both Canadian and American artists relating to the story. Though a fictional case, it was informed by Dr. Doan’s and Dr. Turner’s experiences in street psychiatry.
Want to learn more about Dr. Richard Christensen’s legacy? Head over to christensen-project.psychiatry.ufl.edu to read the Memorial Ethics Curriculum and access other resources relating to his life and the field of street psychiatry.