Passing the Torch

Mental health experts honor Richard Christensen, M.D., champion of 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., an 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 because of what they’ve seen and because of whom they met.

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.

Christensen, 60, was killed on Thanksgiving Day 2015 when he was struck by a driver while on a 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.

“Dr. Christensen was 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 and health, as well as on health care access for those in need, with a focus on the mentally ill and homeless populations.