Friends in deed

Psychiatry professorship educates primary care physicians in mental health

Rhona Arenstein, a Virginia Commonwealth University volunteer, mental health advocate and community fundraiser, knows all too well what it feels like to struggle with issues surrounding mental illness.

She watched her older brother, who lived with manic depressive disorder, struggle throughout their childhood. As she aged, she, too, struggled with anxiety and depression. A doctor who did not have psychiatric training prescribed anti-depressants, which worsened the symptoms.

“It was a traumatic situation; I had real difficulty in coping,” Arenstein said.

So when friends Sara Belle and Neil November’s son Scott, who also had depression, passed away, Arenstein suggested they honor his memory with a gift to the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. The idea was to help train medical students to better understand the medications available for treatment and the proper protocols to follow.

“I understand a lot of the issues, and I found myself getting more and more involved with developing ways in which to help people recognize the importance of gaining access to treatment,” Arenstein said. “When my dear friends lost their son, it was a tremendous shock. He had been given an antidepressant that made his symptoms worse and led to his death.”

In 2013, the Novembers agreed to make a $250,000 gift to help primary care physicians understand depression and other aspects of mental illness. With their gift, the couple chose to honor their friend and steadfast supporter of mental health and wellness efforts at VCU, Rhona Arenstein.

A year later, Arenstein’s friend and former VCU rector, Thomas Rosenthal, along with his wife, Wendy, and father, Gilbert, made a gift to support the effort.

“We believe mental health is important for people in our society. There’s a compelling need to have trained practitioners familiar with how to best help their patients,” Thomas Rosenthal said. “We wanted to help.”

The Rhona Arenstein Professorship in Psychiatry is held by James Levenson, M.D., chair of the division of consultation-liaison psychiatry and vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine. He specializes in psychiatric problems in the medically ill.

“We’re in a period of transition in this country in how care is delivered,” Levenson said. “When it comes to general medicine versus mental health care, they’re in separate silos, and that’s a very ineffective way to deliver care. There is a need to integrate medical and mental health care. Because there are not enough psychiatrists, most psychiatric medications are prescribed by primary care providers.”

The professorship is devoted to helping bridge that gap by enhancing the psychiatric knowledge and skills of nonpsychiatric health care providers to care for patients who are part of their practices.

“The Arenstein Professorship represents an important commitment by the November and Rosenthal families to foster the teaching of psychiatry to our colleagues in primary care,” said Joel S. Silverman, M.D. (H.S.’73/M), chairman of the Department of Psychiatry in the VCU School of Medicine. “Because a very high proportion of children and adults with emotional problems will first contact their primary care physicians, it is so important that these caring doctors remain current on the advances in psychiatric care. Having consultation with a skilled psychiatrist available to them enhances patient safety and treatment.”

Arenstein is confident the next generation of physicians will be more familiar with depression, and patients will be more open to seeking help.

“Your brain is the most important organ you have; if it is not functioning properly, you should seek help,” she said. “If you don’t have your mental health, you don’t have your health!”

For more information about the Department of Psychiatry, contact Tom Holland, associate dean of development for the School of Medicine, at (804) 828-3800 or