Remembering a Psychiatrist’s Work on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

January 12, 2018
H. Steven Moffic, MD

In addition to the indirect positive effect that Dr. King had on the self-esteem of so many, he implicitly connected his work to psychiatry. Who better to associate MLK's vision of “Beloved Community” than psychiatrist Phyllis Harrison-Ross?

After my many “In Memoriam” blogs for Psychiatric Times, I invariably hear about someone I may have missed or died immediately following the publication of the piece. This was the case after writing my 2017 collection eulogizing psychiatrists. In Medscape’s list of “Physicians of the Year 2017: Best and Worst,” no psychiatrist was among those considered the “worst” but one did make the most honorable. Phyllis Harrison-Ross, MD died on January 16, 2017, a year and a day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day. What, if anything, connected her and her role as a psychiatrist to Dr. King? Here’s what one psychiatrist who shall remain nameless wrote to me on December 22, 2017:

“Phyllis Harrison-Ross, MD was an absolute legend. [She founded] Black Psychiatrists of Greater New York (BPGNY). She served as a role model for us and so many careers have blossomed because of her empathic, insightful mentoring. As members of BPGNY, we are actively mourning her loss and miss her tremendously. However, we are adamant in continuing the work of our beloved elder.”

In addition to the indirect positive effect that Dr. King had on the self-esteem of so many, he implicitly connected his work to psychiatry. On Christmas Eve 1967, he proclaimed: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Given that premise, who would be surprised that black Americans were underserved and mis-served in psychiatry in that era? Who would be surprised that they were underrepresented among psychiatrists? We have made progress since then, but there is more work still to be done.

Dr. Harrison-Ross spent her career trying to make things better, to right these wrongs, including being a primary leader by:

• designing services for children with a combination of severe developmental, psychological, and physical disability

• promoting “televisiting,” which linked inmates in New York prisons to their families

• supporting telepsychiatry to bridge gaps to link psychiatrists and patients

• volunteering as president of the “All Healers Mental Health Alliances,” which brought together colleagues to provide interfaith disaster services after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina

• appointed by President Johnson to the first National Minority Advisory Board of the National Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration

Like Dr. King, she was a leader in the black community.1 She served as President of the Black Psychiatrists of America from 1976 to 1978. In 2004, she received the American Psychiatric Association’s Solomon Carter Fuller Award for her work in improving mental health for minorities.

I’m quite sure that there are other very worthy candidates to consider leaders in minority mental health. Even so, it would be fitting for us psychiatrists to think of Dr. Harrison-Ross’s contributions to psychiatry on the anniversary of her death, the day after we reflect on the impact of Dr. King, 50 years later. Even more importantly, let us use these anniversaries to recommit ourselves to reaching the mountaintop of social justice in society and psychiatry that Dr. King and Dr. Harrison-Ross climbed.

References:

1. Snyder A. Phyllis Harrison-Ross: Lancet. 2017;389:1392, 2017.