Commencement 2019: Pharmacy student is mental health advocate, community activist

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Nicole Schwab
Nicole Schwab. Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 13, 2019 — Mental health is sometimes overlooked in favor of physical health, but sixth-year pharmacy major Nicole Schwab will correctly tell you that it is just as important. Even before entering the pharmacy program at the University of Rhode Island, Schwab knew she wanted to help people with things like addiction and mental health.

“I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a pharmacist,” said Schwab, who will earn her doctor of pharmacy degree at URI’s Commencement Sunday, May 19. “Pharmacy isn’t just pushing pills across the counter at someone; there is a whole other human side to it.”

Schwab learned about mental health and addiction in high school in her hometown of Colden, New York. As a high school sophomore, she represented her club, Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), at a conference in Buffalo that addressed young people with substance use disorders. There, she listened to a pharmacist speak about addiction and what pharmacists can do to help people who suffer from it. She was able to shadow that same pharmacist.

“This experience helped me fully realize my passion for mental health and addiction treatment,” Schwab said.

Schwab has continued to pursue that passion during her time as a pharmacy student at URI, centering her Advanced Pharmacy Practice rotations around that area. One rotation was at a federal correctional facility where she worked with URI alumnus and psychiatric pharmacist Bill Lehault. During this rotation, she focused on treating inmates with dignity regardless of the crimes they committed.

While assigned to working with inmates who serve as suicide watch companions for other inmates, she had one especially memorable experience. As she talked with male inmates, they told her that there is a societal stigma attached to depression, and many said they would never take medication.

“I do,” Schwab told them in a brave personal exchange. “I sometimes struggle with my mental health and I take medication. Everyone has something going on.”

Afterward, one of the inmate companions thanked her for sharing her experience. He opened up to her about his daughter who struggled with her mental health and became suicidal but then started to get help. Being sentenced to life in prison, the man obviously felt helpless, but Schwab assured him that his daughter had already taken the most difficult first step of seeking help. Later during Schwab’s rotation, the same man came up to her with tears in his eyes to let her know that his daughter was staying on her medication and doing really well.

“It was crazy that I was able to make this connection with someone who I thought I never would,” said Schwab.

Schwab completed another rotation with the Rhode Island Department of Health, during which she attained the crowning achievement of her college career. She wrote a policy statement titled, “Patient-centered care for people who inject drugs,” which focused on harm reduction techniques for health care professionals who encounter people who inject substances in their communities. The American Pharmacists Association adopted her statement as official policy.

“I never thought I would be able to have that kind of impact,” Schwab said.

Outside of her pharmacy work, Schwab served as a student leader for URI Service Corps’ alternative spring break service trips to Atlanta and Baltimore, both centered around the themes of poverty and community revitalization. Schwab said she has always been interested in community service, and leading these trips has not only let her pursue that interest, but also allowed her to share that opportunity with other students and connect with them in a unique way.

“I found a family in a group of strangers,” Schwab said. “These trips helped me learn that my purpose in life is to serve others, and I want to remain deeply connected and rooted to everything I do through service.”

She has also served as a Feinstein Civic Engagement Leader and provided street outreach to the homeless population in Providence every Tuesday for the last two years.

After graduation, she has a job with Genoa Healthcare, where she has interned since completing a rotation there. She will work with nurses, psychologists and other pharmacists to continue to serve the Rhode Island community by helping improve pharmaceutical policy.

Having accomplished so much as a student, Schwab plans to continue giving back to the community when she becomes an alumna. She plans to become board certified in psychiatric pharmacy.

“Sometimes I think so big that I start to feel hopeless,” Schwab said. “But I am grounded through service.”