Psychiatry runs in the veins of Alexis Ritvo ’01, MD, MPH. The daughter of two psychiatrists and the seventh psychiatrist in her extended family, Ritvo is practicing in the field at a critical time for mental illness and substance abuse in the U.S.
Her work (and her father’s) at the UCHealth Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation (CeDAR)—and that of her relatives across the country—may be more valuable than ever before, impacting related issues like mass shootings and the opioid crisis.
The interim associate practice director and faculty supervisor at UCHealth Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic says Colorado Academy gave her (as well as her twin brother Jared Ritvo ‘01 and older sister Bennett Ritvo ’99) the social and emotional support needed to learn, grow, and thrive—meaningful words from someone who’s devoted her life’s work to mental health.
Where human understanding combines with medicine
Starting when she was a child, Ritvo could see that her many psychiatrist family members loved their work. Now she has discovered the ways in which she loves this field of medicine.
“Psychiatry gives you the opportunity to try to understand someone in their unique life situation,” says Ritvo, who is assistant professor of psychiatry and associate program director for the Addiction Psychiatry Fellowship at the CU School of Medicine. “Not all of medicine gives you time to do that.”
You can hear the energy in her voice when she describes approaching patient treatment from multiple angles and applying the latest research to help people. She provides training and works to raise awareness around addiction and substance use issues for medical students and resident physicians, as well as for general psychiatrists.
“Even if I don’t convince others to specialize in addiction, if I can get them to appreciate that they’ll see addiction and substance use issues in their patients, they’ll be more likely to be able to identify those issues—and a lot more people can be helped,” she says.
On top of that, she leverages her public health knowledge to impact health policy, with the goals of increasing access to care and making treatment for mental health and substance abuse equal to that for physical health.
She is involved with the Colorado Psychiatry Society, has served on their legislative committee, and has testified in the state legislature for bills related to addiction and access to mental health care.
And when all of her work feels like a Prometheus-like effort?
“You do the best you can, and you try to make sure people understand that you’re trying to help them,” Ritvo says. “You learn and you go through your own therapy to process difficult patients and cases.”
Where you learn how to drink from the fire hydrant
To expend the emotional labor that her profession demands, Ritvo often calls on coping skills she developed at CA.
As a young student, she had a paralyzing fear of writing. When she was frozen with anxiety over an essay assignment, history teacher Jim Blanas would sit down with her and help her sort out the work, and her fears.
“CA was pivotal in helping me learn how to manage that feeling of drinking from a fire hydrant of information and knowledge,” she says. “When you can’t process it all, you determine how to break it down into manageable pieces.”
She found her way as a student, going on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a medical degree and master’s in public health from Emory University. She completed her psychiatry residency and addiction psychiatry fellowship at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Now, she trains psychiatry residents in two important lessons she learned at CA: how to identify what you don’t know and ways to learn it and how to ask for help.
“CA, along with our parents, did a wonderful job of making us curious and teaching us how to learn,” she says.
Where you meet your future bridesmaids
For Ritvo, the support and sense of community at CA still plays a big role in her life.
As a child, she had scoliosis, which required her to wear a back brace all through Middle School and have major spinal fusion surgery at the beginning of high school. She believes that, had she had been at another school, classmates would have made fun of her—but that didn’t happen at CA.
After grad school, Ritvo returned to the Denver area, where she met her husband, Akos Mersich (a child psychiatrist, of course!), and they now live with their 19-month-old daughter Lucy—and have a son due in August!
Some of her close friends from CA live in the Denver area, as well, and some live out of state—but they have all stayed in touch over the nearly two decades since graduation. And of her four bridesmaids, three were CA classmates.
“I had so many really close friends at CA, people you come back to visit,” she says. “It was the whole community, and that community continues to be a huge thing for me—that feeling that you have people who know you extremely well.”