Mental health experts gather to remember Dr. Christensen, champion of the homeless

On the second annual memorial and advocacy day to honor the late Richard C. Christensen, M.D., who selflessly served the homeless for 25 years, numerous members of the psychiatry community gathered on the University of Florida campus April 28 to remember their friend, co-worker and mentor.

But before they sat down for lunch and a lecture at the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute, several colleagues of the beloved UF professor of psychiatry followed in his footsteps by visiting GRACE Marketplace, Gainesville’s center for the homeless.

Among those along for the tour was Sheryl Fleisch, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University. Fleisch, who was a psychiatry resident when she met Christensen, said it was transformative and inspirational to see people change how they practice by what they’ve seen and by whom they met. This type of teaching and fluidity in practice was something that Christensen was able to do and inspire in other people, and provided her with someone to look up to.

Fleisch later delivered the memorial lecture and psychiatry grand rounds, during which 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.

“When you’re starting anything like this, you always look for someone who has done it before,” she said. “It was a little disheartening at the time to know that there was no one doing it — then it was very exciting to know that there was one man who was doing this kind of work, and most exciting that he felt that it was valuable to not just do it himself but teach others to do it too.”

Christensen, 60, was killed on Thanksgiving Day 2015 when he was struck by a driver while on morning run in Zambia, where he was volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity build.

While serving as the director of Behavioral Health Services at the Sulzbacher Center in Jacksonville, Christensen also taught medical students and oversaw clinics.

An art exhibit of puzzle pieces painted by Christensen’s patients at the Helping Hands Clinic in Gainesville and the Sulzbacher Center and by members of the UF psychiatry department were featured at the memorial event. The puzzle pieces were meant to represent his teaching style and finding the ability to pull oneself together while suffering from mental illness.

“What happened was a tragedy, and I had the absolute honor of working with him for 13 years,” said Tory Wilcox, behavioral health counselor at the Sulzbacher Center. “Everybody knew him and he was a consummate teacher.”

“Dr. Christensen was extremely dedicated. He was certainly a role model for anyone who came in contact with him, and most definitely an educator,” said Angela Camacho-Duran, M.D., an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of psychiatry. “He loved his patients and providing education. He would be excited about all of the things we’re doing in his name, even though he was so modest and humble, he never would have wanted his name used.”

During his career, Christensen was named Exemplary Teacher in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 1996, he was awarded UF’s highest teaching honor, the Hippocratic Award. In May of 2016, he was honored with this award again posthumously. During his lifetime, he published hundreds of articles and books on medical ethics, health care access for those in need with a focus on the mentally ill and homeless population.

– By Jasmine Osmond