Students report difficulties accessing psychiatric medication

Julia Goldberg

(Devika Goel/The Williams Record)

Students are struggling to access consistent and reliable psychiatric resources at the College, according to several student interviews with the Record. An increase in demand for mental health services this fall has contributed to a months-long waitlist to see the only psychiatrist currently at the College, Dr. Susan Mahler.

If students are running low on medication or need immediate medical guidance before the next available appointment with Mahler, they can meet with a practitioner at the Health Center, according to a PDF included in an email sent by Administrative Assistant Jessica Russell to students seeking psychiatric care. The PDF also said that students can consult psychiatrists outside of the College through Talkspace psychiatry, a virtual resource that usually has a wait time of under one week and is free for students at the College.

Mahler said Integrative Wellbeing Services (IWS) is aware of the long wait times and will be hiring a second psychiatrist this spring, which should double the number of psychiatry hours available to students. “I feel confident that with the additional services we are adding, we will be in a much better position to reduce waiting periods for appointments,” she wrote in an email to the Record.

Lemmy Evans ’23 said speaking to psychiatrists at the school — both Mahler and a previous psychiatrist with whom they met last year — vastly improved their quality of life. “The psychiatrists are helpful, and they have information to share with you,” they said. “But there is a lot of stress surrounding the logistics.”

Other students have told the Record that they have trouble maintaining consistent access to psychiatric care at the College. Noah Jacobson ’22 said that every time he attempts to make his appointments with Mahler, he has to explain that his medication is prescribed on a monthly basis, as it is subject to frequent changes, and must insist on an earlier meeting than is first offered to him.

Another student — who spoke to the Record anonymously due to the personal nature of her experiences and medical needs and will be referred to by the pseudonym Cindy — reported struggling with the medication that she received from the Health Center in lieu of an appointment with Mahler. Cindy said that she tried to see Mahler in the fall but could not book an appointment with her until February. Instead, she went to the Health Center to see a nurse practitioner, who then prescribed her an antidepressant for her anxiety. “She didn’t talk that much about what medication she was putting me on and how it would affect me,” she said. “She just prescribed [it to] me immediately.”

Cindy also said that the nurse dismissed her concerns over possible side effects, telling her that nausea would be the only problem. However, Cindy said going on that medication was “the worst experience of [her] life.”

During the first few days on her new medication, Cindy struggled to breathe during one of her classes, and after leaving class, she collapsed on the stairs on the way to her dorm. “It was doing the opposite of its job,” Cindy said. “I couldn’t leave my room. I was getting sick every five minutes.”

After a week and a half, the nurse took Cindy off the antidepressant that she was initially prescribed and gave her a different antidepressant. The second medication left her with side effects including headaches and emotional blunting, or experiencing emotions that are more dull than usual. At that point, Cindy decided to see a private psychiatrist, who recommended she begin weaning off of the medication immediately. Cindy’s experiences with the Health Center nurse practitioner left her feeling “misinformed.”

Director of Medical Services Deborah Flynn said that the practitioners at the Health Center, who are well-versed in treating common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, may refer a student to Mahler if multiple medications fail or if the student does not respond as expected to specific doses.

Cindy’s practitioner did not recommend she see Mahler and did not respond to an email Cindy sent after winter break explaining that she had decided to stop her medication.“ It was weird because we communicated about the medication so much when she was prescribing it to me,” Cindy said.

Like Cindy, Pat Klugman ’25 was unable to make an appointment to see Mahler in the near future. Instead, he spoke to a Talkspace psychiatrist, but he felt frustrated by her lack of professionalism, he said in an interview with the Record.

When registering for Talkspace psychiatry, Klugman listed the Williamstown Apothecary as his pharmacy and his home in New York as his address. After he made an appointment with a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist asked why Klugman’s address and pharmacy were in different states. Klugman explained he was a college student, and the psychiatrist canceled the meeting, as they were not licensed in Massachusetts, he said.

After the first psychiatrist canceled, Klugman rescheduled with another Talkspace psychiatrist. However, his experience with her was rushed and impersonal. “She would be like, ‘Are you really happy, then really sad, then really happy?’ and I’d say no, and she’d be like, ‘OK, then you don’t have bipolar disorder,’” he said.

In that meeting, Klugman informed his psychiatrist of his current prescription, which she reordered for him. “I’m glad to be getting refills, but if this were a starting point, I’d be screwed,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be comfortable going in with something new for them to diagnose.”

Klugman said the process as a whole felt unnecessarily complicated. “You have to go through like ten hurdles just to get the medications you think you need,” he added.

Evans said it is “ironic” that students need to go through multiple stressful hoops to access medication they are taking to decrease their stress levels. Like Jacobson, Evans’ medication is prescribed in shorter increments, as its efficacy must be frequently evaluated by a psychiatrist. Evans knew they would be due for a refill soon and booked an appointment with Mahler a few weeks into the school year.

Evans assumed the meeting would be remote, like their check-ins had been with their previous psychiatrist at the College, but was told that it needed to take place in person. Because of this miscommunication, Evans then had to reschedule their appointment for the next available time slot — which was in November. But when they arrived at the November meeting, Mahler was remote for the week and the appointment occurred virtually anyway. Because Evans needed to receive medication before November, they communicated with the Health Center rather than Mahler when they needed refills. 

Evans said they were frustrated by the obstacles they faced while attempting to obtain their medicine this year. “You feel very on your own,” they said. “You have to do a lot of self-advocating.”