Dr. Morgan Alexander exudes genuine warmth from the moment she pops up on your screen. Instantly chatty and engaging, her remarkable ability to connect with patients enables her to engage in a way that transcends the conventional doctor-patient relationship — and to understand people beyond mere diagnoses.
“I look back on so many of my experiences and realize that it was usually my curiosity driving them,” she says. “I just needed to see and understand the human behind some of these labels that get talked about so much in popular culture.” This natural disposition is at the heart of her professional practice, with Dr. Alexander enthusiastically championing a philosophy that prioritizes psychotherapy and lifestyle changes as pivotal to mental health.
“I think medication is important,” she acknowledges, emphasizing its crucial role in psychiatric treatment to help treat issues from a biological perspective. “But if someone’s experiences during their personal development are the crux of the issue, then medication can never penetrate that. I've seen a lot of providers throw medication after medication at patients, trying to get there, and I can’t help but think: That's not the issue though — that's not addressing the cause of the problem.”
Igniting the Passion
Dr. Alexander's path to psychiatry was not the product of lifelong ambition, but rather an awakening of purpose amidst the challenges of medical school. Early into her journey, she faced a significant crossroads. “I actually got about six months into medical school and had a bit of a crisis,” she confesses. “I didn't want to just sit and read a textbook, but to learn about other people's lives.”
The rigors and the clinical detachment required in medical training initially seemed at odds with her inclination for human connection as she felt a disconnection from her chosen path. “I could have been a therapist,” she recalls thinking, “and now I have a quarter million dollars’ worth of medical school debt and the next three and a half years to get through!”
This sense of misalignment, however, took a dramatic turn during a rotation at a state hospital’s forensic unit where patients had often committed violent crimes. Initially daunted by the prospect, as soon as she started to meet with the patients it ignited a passion. “I didn't want to leave. I couldn't get enough of it,” she recalls with enthusiasm. “I got to sit there and talk to people and allow all of my views to be challenged by their life and their story. I loved connecting the constellation of their life to make sense of how that might have led to unconventional behavior patterns.”
This experience was a revelation, aligning with her deep-rooted curiosity about people and their stories. It was here that she realized her ability to empathize and connect could be powerful tools in the realm of psychiatry. “When I told my family and friends, I thought they were all going to be shocked that I ended up in psychiatry of all specialties, but everyone was like, ‘Duh, that makes total sense for the person that you are.’”
Choosing a path less traveled in modern psychiatry, Dr. Alexander consciously deviates from the norm by dedicating significant time to psychotherapy with her patients. In an era where many psychiatrists lean heavily on medication management, she stands out for her commitment to in-depth, personal interactions through various therapeutic modalities. This approach reflects her deep-seated belief in the power of connecting with patients on a profound level.
“I find psychodynamic psychotherapy the most accessible,” she explains, emphasizing her preference for exploring the narratives that give meaning to patients' lives. This method allows patterns that often underlie mental health issues to be uncovered and addressed. But Dr. Alexander's arsenal also includes other approaches such as cognitive-behavioral and trauma-informed approaches, enabling her to tailor her therapy to the unique needs of each patient.
Her methods can at times be seen as unconventional, as Dr. Alexander leans on her instincts and belief in a human-centric approach that goes beyond the medical textbooks.
She recalls one experience with a young patient who had been hospitalized for weeks with psychotic symptoms, and wasn’t aware of who or where she was. “She kept singing to herself, and I noticed that,” Dr. Alexander recalls. “That was some of the only interaction I could get from her initially. So I pulled out my phone and just started playing Spotify songs for her. For two weeks in a row, that was my entire psychiatric interview with her some days, just to listen to those songs. And eventually she started making little song requests. It was so human.”
While her patient’s thoughts were still scrambled, Dr. Alexander noticed her “coming back into her body”. “She was so scared!” Dr. Alexander reflects on the young woman’s general condition. “And after she got better she was able to explain how much that meant to her.”
To Dr. Alexander, this example is illustrative of her wider approach. “The primary question driving my treatment is: how can I help you find the version of yourself that feels right? And let's start there,” she says. “We can build all the rest of it off of that — whether you may need Prozac or CBT or whatever — but we need to start with you and I seeing each other clearly, and you feeling like yourself while we're talking.”
Dr. Alexander traces her genuine interest in other people to her upbringing in a small, rural town with a modest, tight-knit community. “The vast majority of my community was white and very few had left the town to have their own life anywhere else,” she explains. “I think a lot of that curiosity I have today comes from having been deprived of that diversity of experience and the opportunity to indulge that in myself as a younger person. And so now, as an adult, I'll take whatever I can get my hands on.”
Upon leaving home to pursue her studies, Dr. Alexander actively sought out and engaged with a variety of groups and causes, from LGBT+ advocacy to supporting those affected by substance misuse. Her volunteering efforts with refugees and active participation in women's rights initiatives further underscored her commitment to understanding and empathizing with different life stories.
“I never wanted to only understand what it was like to be me,” she says. “So it was meaningful to go out and sit with people and talk with them about their opioid use disorder or get training for Naloxone. Those interpersonal experiences were really informative for the way that I continue to interact with my patients — it humanized all of the clinical rhetoric I was being taught.”
The recent transformative experience of motherhood has also brought a new dimension to Dr. Alexander's professional life. Witnessing firsthand the profound impact of early parenting experiences on a child's development, she gained a deeper understanding of the intricacies of human psychology. “So many of the issues that we develop as adults really do come back to our early parenting experiences,” she notes.
This personal journey through motherhood has not only enriched her empathy and insight with patients, but also solidified her focus on reproductive psychiatry, a still developing area of the profession. “Hoping to conceive, pregnancy, post-partum – the sleep deprivation with those phases – it’s incredible how much it affects your mind and sense of self,” she says. “Women need to have an experienced psychiatrist to whom they can bring these parts of their lives.”
‘Watch this thing on Netflix’
Her passion for travel and, when that’s not possible, absorbing documentaries, further reflects Dr. Alexander’s ongoing quest to understand the myriad facets of human life. “When I was growing up, I couldn’t meet a person who spoke Arabic, for example, but I could watch documentaries or listen to podcasts; I could read about them,” she shares.
In her practice, this love for documentaries often translates into recommendations for her patients. For instance, she speaks highly of Stutz on Netflix, a documentary that candidly showcases the therapeutic process. “I think it made concrete what psychotherapy looks like for a lot of people,” she says, appreciating its honest portrayal of the therapist-client relationship.
“Some patients will tell me, ‘Yeah, I just want you to prescribe me medication; I don't know about the whole therapy thing; I don't want to talk about my mother.’ And I can say, ‘Watch this thing on Netflix for 20 minutes, and that is what it's more like — see if that makes it feel a little bit more doable for you. We're not going to have to talk about your mom the whole time.’”
Dr. Alexander also reflects on the increased visibility of mental health issues in popular culture, particularly on social media platforms. While she sees the benefit of this heightened awareness, she is cautious about its double-edged nature. “People are talking about it a lot more, which I think is a good thing,” she acknowledges, “but I see on Instagram all the time that conversation is being had poorly.”
Wary of the misinformation and self-diagnosis trends proliferating online, she cautions against self-proclaimed expertise derived from social media. “Some people have really different ideas about their own symptoms or there are people who've labeled themselves and their loved ones with all kinds of diseases,” she says. “And I'm like, ‘Actually, I think you're just a human being in the world. I don't know that I need to slap all these labels on you necessarily.’”
In her practice, Dr. Alexander emphasizes the importance of educating patients who seek a deeper understanding of their conditions. She caters to those who desire clinical explanations, even occasionally forwarding journal articles to patients curious about the biochemical intricacies of their brain. “I am a curious person. I want to know how everything works,” she states, “and if patients want that, I really want to give it to them and in as practical terms as they want it.”
Embracing Modern Psychiatry
When it comes to telepsychiatry, Dr. Alexander is a ‘digital native’, having first used it to provide psychiatric services to intellectually disabled adults even before its wider proliferation during the Covid pandemic. In telepsychiatry sessions, she particularly values the opportunity to be invited into her patients' personal spaces, explaining how they can provide a unique window that can offer insights that enrich the therapeutic process.
“I love that I am invited into somebody's natural environment,” she remarks. “It often speaks to who they are – someone’s literal space can say a lot about their mental space…and sometimes I just get to appreciate the art that they have in the background, but in all aspects I find it really insightful and conducive to the therapeutic process.”
Dr. Alexander acknowledges that it’s not for everyone, but she works hard to try and transcend the digital divide as far as possible. “It requires me to be that much more human with my patients, so that they realize even though we're on a screen, I'm still gonna be me,” she says. “How can we continue to feel like we're actually in-person and create a shared space together, even though we're not sharing physical space? Not always easy, but I think if you're mindful of it, it's really doable.”
In contemplating the future of psychiatry, Dr. Alexander is particularly intrigued by the potential integration of AI into psychiatric processes. While she has her reservations about what that may look like, she suggests one potential area may be to somehow help supplement the shortage of mental health providers. “I think we all have a lot of questions in our broader culture about how AI will be used,” she says. “But I think it’s going to be used in mental health; I feel sure of it. So I'm very finger-on-the-pulse there.”
She is also keenly following the growing body of research into the potential benefits of psychedelics in certain therapeutic settings. “I think that anyone who isn't at least intrigued by the potential is living in the stigma of what they've been classified to be in the past,” she states. “But there's also a lot of legitimate research that they can be potentially powerful for people when they're used in the right context, and I find it really exciting and fascinating.”
Walking the Talk
For Dr. Alexander, mental wellbeing isn’t just the focus of her professional life, but also a focus of her personal life too. Part of this has often meant having her own therapist to help reflect on issues that may arise in the course of her work.
“I have a healthy amount of fear about how a psychiatrist’s own biases and human error might get in the way of professional practice. It’s the ancient proverb ‘physician, heal thyself’ – I try to be diligent about taking good care of myself and exploring the impact of my work and life in my own psyche,” she says. “It’s important to me to walk the walk alongside my patients.”
She also finds solace and rejuvenation in an array of hobbies including watercolor painting and writing, and loves to stay active through hiking and distance running. These hobbies are not mere pastimes; they are vital components of her self-care regimen. “Exercise, or ‘moving’ in some way that feels relaxing to me, it calms my central nervous system and is incredibly helpful,” she says.
And, she points out, the mental health benefits of exercise are by no means unique to her. Physical movement - whatever that looks like for an individual - is also something she advocates to her patients as part of her holistic approach to their care.
“We are all frustrated because we’re constantly being told to ‘eat right’ and ‘exercise,’ she says. “But getting your heart rate up and feeling a little bit of sweat on the back of your neck is better than medication. If you can see them as a way of building trust in the relationship you have with your body, both food and movement have the potential to be truly healing.”
“Maybe it sounds cliché, but I genuinely feel it’s a privilege to be doing this job, helping them reach their goals and move through life with more ease and meaning. Every time I end a session with a patient, I’m better for it,” she says. “And my hope is that they feel they are too.”