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From Battle Scars to Healing Hearts: Ashley Howell's Insights on Military Mental Health

Ashley Howell, a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) and military veteran, discusses military mental health and her personal experiences transitioning to civilian life after discharge.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) and veteran Ashley Howell shares insights on military mental health and her transition to civilian life post-discharge.

Ashley Howell is a board-certified family psychiatric nurse practitioner with over a decade of experience in mental health and critical care. Ashley is an Armed Service veteran, which gives her unique insight and understanding into veteran and military mental health issues. 

Ashley is passionate about working with patients who are going through a transition phase in life, such as high school students, college students, military members, and postpartum women. She is an LGBTQ+ ally and provider.

If you're interested in seeking mental health support, schedule a consultation with Ashley by clicking on the button below.

Please note that this blog does not constitute medical advice. If you're a veteran in crisis, please contact the Veteran Crisis Line or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Tell us about your background and what got you started in military mental health?

I didn't develop an interest in mental health care in the military. I initially started out in the medical side of healthcare and bounced around to different specialties, Goldielocks style. But despite my best efforts, none of the specialties I worked in “felt right.” One day, as I was working in the float pool, I got sent to the inpatient psychiatric floor. It was nerve-wracking as I didn’t have a lot of exposure to psychiatric patients at the time. After that shift, I started to explore the options and realized I enjoyed helping people improve their mental health.

How do you spend your free time?

In the spring and summer, I like to dig around in the dirt and *attempt* to grow vegetables. Colorado is tricky for gardening (my poor tomatoes did not survive last year's hailstorms), but I have really enjoyed it. In the winter, I like to read! I tend to enjoy thrillers but have been trying to get more into the fantasy genre. I love to travel outside of the country, as well as around the US. I am working on visiting all of Colorado’s 43 state parks!

In addition to military mental health, what’s something you’ve struggled with in the past that you’ve overcome? How did you overcome it? Who helped you and how does that experience inform your practice?

Military mental health was not a priority after my service. It's different now thanks to the Brandon Act, which makes it possible for anyone in the military to get a mental health evaluation just by asking their supervisor. Nowadays, military mental health resources are easily accessible.

When I got discharged from the military, I was only 22 and kind of lost in life. There wasn't a lot of information about mental health issues in the military. I jumped into college because that’s “what I was supposed to do.” Looking back, I was dealing with a great deal of anxiety and PTSD from my service, and this is really common for veterans. It took me several years to label those symptoms. Therapy, supplements, and adjusting my lifestyle have helped me tremendously. My struggles allow me to have a deeper level of empathy for those struggling with military mental health challenges. I encourage all of my patients whether they are in the military or not to consider making lifestyle changes. We discuss supplement options and with our in-house therapists and our referral network, I can help them find a therapist that is a good fit for them.

What areas do you think are under-researched in mental health?

The relationship between hormone cycles, mental health, and oral contraceptives is well documented. I am often surprised that despite the research done in this area, there still seems to be a shortage of effective solutions.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

As much as I believe in the connection between emotional and physical health, I am well known for a daily “emotional support diet coke.” One can a day, because you know, balance.

What’s something that you were skeptical about but actually surprised you because it’s so effective?

Everything they say about sobriety is true! The effects of alcohol on our mental health are not a secret. I think as a society, we’re all a little too obsessed with alcohol. Giving it up has been completely freeing and has helped me with “hang-xiety.”

If there was one thing that you could get more patients to do to take care of their mental health, what would it be?

The answer is "exercise". I am not saying you have to be an Olympic-level athlete (I once broke my ankle walking on flat land, so I am not one to lecture on athleticism), but moving our bodies intentionally has so many benefits for depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Do you define success differently today than you did when you were younger? How?

Absolutely. As a capitalistic society, we’re always wanting the “next thing.” It's like the old-school cartoon of a dog running on a treadmill with the bone dangling in front of them. I think this causes us to lack the ability to be content with what we have achieved. I think this is also a great contribution to our mood, major depressive disorder, burnout, etc.

Do you have any tips for managing your mental health?

“If you feel like you hate everyone, eat something. If you feel like everyone hates you, go to sleep. If you feel like you hate yourself, have a shower. “

This won't “cure” depression, but it can be a small difference that helps you along the way. Also, check out our pages on Spravato, TMS, and Ketamine if you'd like to explore better treatments for depression than just daily pills.

Do you have any hobbies, projects or side hustles that you’re passionate about?

Gardening, breadmaking, baking. I recently started taking drum lessons and am excited about that! I think introducing novelty is important to mental health, and that's one of the reasons that we invest in our social prescribing program at Axis Integrated Mental Health.

What’s the phone app you use the most?

Outside of the ones I use for work, I'd say the NYT Games. I am a fierce Wordle Warrior 😊. I'm also a big fan of Libby (Library app- free audio and e-books).

What’s a book you think everyone should read?

Read or listen to Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, a book by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A.

It's written by twin sisters - both who have experienced burnout and subsequent anxiety/depression from their lifestyle and learned behaviors.

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