Giving a voice to mentally ill Psychiatrist wears three hats to serve patients

Elliott and Heather Levy during a 2011 trip to Asheville, N.C.’s mountains with their children (from left) Anna, Andrew and Aiden.

There are calls that psychiatrist Dr. Elliott Levy won’t ever forget.

Like a man who had just killed his wife and another man, then locked himself in his truck with alcohol and a shotgun.

Where some people saw a killer, Levy saw a man in pain.

A Sunday school teacher, the man was at his parents’ gravesite ready to end his life. He’d thought — wrongly, it turned out — that his wife and the man he killed were having an affair, Levy recalls.

When Levy arrived at the scene, a police officer handed him a phone.

“Part of it is providing hope,” Levy says. “The man knew he was going to jail. For him, what’s left?”

Communicating through a SWAT robot, Levy found a source of hope: the man’s Sunday school students.

He surrendered, alive.

The odd thing is only one clinical rotation in medical school didn’t interest Levy: psychiatry.

Looking back now, though, it seems obvious.

Levy hailed from a family of talkers. They love to sit around a table and talk and talk, about something, about nothing.

He fit right in.

Yet he shied away from psychiatry. The mentally ill loomed a vast unknown, one that admittedly unnerved him a bit.

So Levy took a summer job at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Institute of Psychiatry working with children.

In the end, he wanted to be either a psychiatrist or a surgeon.

Which is where the talking thing came in. Surgeons typically don’t spend much time interacting with patients while they’re awake.

Psychiatry, on the other hand, is much about talking and building trust.

Levy also felt drawn to the voyeuristic quality of psychiatry, to hearing details of a person’s illness and life challenges, from a schizophrenic’s delusions to a veteran’s combat.

He also felt protective of psychiatry patients, given society’s stigmas and the lack of funding for mental health care.

Jump ahead 15 years. Today, Levy is a leading local voice for the mentally ill and wears three important hats.

He is medical director of the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center, which provides local care to the masses who are uninsured or rely on Medicaid.

As mental health outpatient chief for the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, he manages outpatient care for veterans facing psychiatric issues.

And he is associate training director of MUSC’s psychiatry residency program, helping to mold tomorrow’s doctors.

“He’s found a good balance,” says Levy’s wife, Heather, a nurse at MUSC. “And he feels he’s doing good work.”

Fresh from school in 1999, Levy took a job with the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center’s mobile crisis unit, a 24/7 psychiatric emergency response team.

He loved it. Back then, mental health centers were basking in golden years, a time when they were well-funded and attention was shifting from state hospitals to releasing patients home to bolstered local programs.

The mobile crisis job took him out into the community to reach people who were suffering psychotic breaks, often in their homes, at times involving hostages or threats to jump off local bridges.

“We got very interesting patients,” he says. “And they needed an advocate. They needed people to fight for them.”

Then times changed.

The economy tanked, and the state Department of Mental Health endured a series of massive budget cuts. As those cuts trickled to the mental health center, Levy’s job changed, too.

He could not go out into the community to reach patients anymore. It cost too much.

He was so swamped that he had little time to help anyone.

“The budget was terrible, and we were really short-staffed,” he recalls. “It was nonstop here.”

To him, the deep budget cuts reflected society’s stigma against mental illness compared with illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

“It’s so important. But unless it touches you in some way, it’s easy to slough off,” he says.

With more work piled on, Levy’s frustration boiled at lacking time and taking work home.

Not to mention he could earn more elsewhere.

With a wife and young children at home, including twins, it wasn’t fair to anyone.

After a decade, he left.

“It was very hard to leave. We are on a massive mission here,” Levy says.

Yet he stayed on the center’s board of directors, a little piece of him still connected.

He took a job at the VA Medical Center where he entered a world of Vietnam veterans with festering post-traumatic stress disorder and soldiers fresh from Middle East combat.

Many didn’t want to talk about the traumatic events fueling their PTSD.

“It requires a great deal of trust,” Levy says. “We’re opening up the most painful things, in detail.”

And being in a hospital meant being privy to a larger picture of patients’ medical histories.

It also meant dealing with fewer funding frustrations.

But a few years later, mental health center Executive Director Deborah Blalock called. Their medical director had left.

Would Levy considering coming back?

Instead, he sat down with Blalock and Dr. Hugh Myrick, chief of mental health at the VA. They came up with a way for him to work at both.

At 47, Levy now splits his time between the two.

When he returned to the mental health center, people hugged him in the hallway.

“It was exciting coming back here. I felt like I was coming home,” he recalls.

Today, he also wears several hats teaching students and psychiatry residents, which he brings to the VA and the mental health center.

Patients have access to more care, and residents see patients with a variety of struggles.

“It’s important that our patients feel like they have an advocate,” Levy says. “And I want to generate doctors who have that empathy.”

Lauren Yarrow, a fourth-year psychiatry resident, has known Levy since medical school.

“He’s very laid back and personal and genuine,” Yarrow says. “But he’s also very astute at observing patients — and you as a doctor. It takes a masterful supervisor to do that.”

When she turned 30, Levy printed out essays by humorist and author David Sedaris, her favorite.

It cost only his consideration, yet was one of her favorite gifts.

“He really cares about these patients and the residents,” Yarrow says. “He’s given me more training than 90 percent of the physicians and is busier than 99 percent of them.”

He also didn’t tell anyone when he was honored recently with the Professional of the Year award by the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Yarrow just happened to notice a plaque stuck back in his office.

As bright as his career looks, Levy’s family suffered a huge loss last fall when his father, optometrist Joel Levy, died.

Losing him meant losing a man who’d served as their synagogue’s president and who showed Levy the value of family and community. Levy then helped move his mother, Eleanor, from Columbia to James Island.

With three jobs, he’s still active with their twin boys, Aiden and Andrew, who are 10, and daughter, Anna, who is 7.

He also has received more than $14,000 in books and has collected donations from local businesses for children at the mental health center.

Oh, and if you see a line outside his office, it might be people needing sugar fixes. He’s widely known for his candy drawer.

“He’ll do for anybody,” Heather Levy says. “If he can, he will.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at