Miss New Hampshire 2021’s personal walk to recovery

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Ashley Marsh, Miss New Hampshire 2021, will offer remarks on mental health as part of Concord Hospital’s 2022 Bridge to Recovery Walk Sept. 25. Photo/Jon Decker

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LACONIA, NH  — When Ashley Marsh ponders her year as Miss New Hampshire 2021, she thinks of a mission that remains close to her heart: Greater awareness of mental health and the invisible struggles for young people — including herself.

Marsh’s role included a string of statewide speeches, engagements, photo shoots and parades, requiring a public face of poise and semi-perfection on top of a roster of talents and achievements.

“There’s an idea that if you’re Miss New Hampshire or Miss America, you’ve lived this perfect life and don’t have any problems,” said Marsh, 27, who currently works at Chaos & Kindness and as a part-time bartender at Naswa Resort while she calibrates her next career step. “If Miss New Hampshire can ask for help,” that can inspire others to reach out for support for mental, emotional and substance use challenges before they become overwhelming or undermining.

Marsh will speak about her journey to wellness at the 2022 Bridge to Recovery Walk on Sept. 25 at Concord Hospital — Franklin. The benefit raises money to support recovery programs there and at Concord Hospital — Laconia, which together serve roughly 650 people who currently use the hospital system’s mental health and recovery services. The annual fundraiser was started in 2017 to help “’bridge’ the gap from initial contact with a patient at the recovery clinic and when resources can be put into place to [help them] begin their recovery journey,” said Marci DeCarli, community affairs director for Concord Hospital — Laconia and Franklin.

For Marsh, starting that journey was a game-changer. The first in her family to attend college, she won a succession of scholarships by competing in pageants. She battled constant anxiety and intermittent depression, she said, but felt unable to admit any weakness or vulnerability because of her role as a model for other girls and young women. She was plagued by insomnia and had panic attacks at the gym — a place that had always felt like home to the dancer and athlete who became a fitness coach.

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Ashley Marsh in her 2021 Miss New Hampshire official photo.

“There was a point where my mom said, ‘Can you be Miss New Hampshire any more?’ It was something I worked so hard for. I thought, Oh man, I have to showcase everything is fine, look at me. I’m Miss New Hampshire, I can’t be asking for help. People think I’m this perfect person, but I’m not.”

Getting over that stereotype was a hurdle, Marsh said. “Last summer, in Orlando [at the Miss America competition], it was almost like living a fake reality. I thought, why am I hiding this from people? Why don’t I talk about it? There’s been such a stigma around mental health for such a long time. I realized I had to be who Ashley was. Opening up and being authentic, that’s what helped,” said Marsh, a Laconia native. She served as Miss Winnipesaukee for two years, and participated in Miss New Hampshire competitions for five years, inspired by young women who had held that title.

She won over $60,000 in scholarships, she said, earning a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at Plymouth State University followed by a master’s degree in athletic counseling from Springfield College. She is trained to work in sports psychology, advising athletic teams on stress management, time management, and other topics related to mental wellbeing.

For her Miss New Hampshire title, she designed a program, “Fit for Life,” which teaches people how to be healthy and fit, regardless of their age and ability. It’s a cause that continues to inspire her now.

“Growing up I had really low self-confidence,” said Marsh. Serving as Miss New Hampshire meant confronting persistent anxiety and self-doubt during a year of public appearances.

“I needed to be my authentic self. Being Miss New Hampshire or Miss America, people think you should be one way” when the way you are is good enough for that high-profile role, said Marsh.

“You are who you are and that’s a beautiful thing,” said Marsh. “If you put your mind to it, you can be Miss New Hampshire.”

Elevating mental health is of strategic importance to youth, especially post-COVID, she said. “I think there are plenty of resources out there. It’s getting the word out. And it’s OK to reach out to someone who needs help.”

Marsh believes there needs to be more mental health education in schools at earlier ages. “You learn you can be sad, happy and mad. I think we need to get a little more in-depth so kids can ask for the help they need. Anxiety is huge and it plays out day-to-day. COVID made kids feel alone. For kids who are outgoing and thrive off the energy of others, being alone really affected their mental health,” she said.

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During her reign as Miss New Hampshire,Ashley Marsh discovered that she had many fans, including these two girls who had been following her journey as a pageant contestant.
“It’s moments like this that make me realize how much of an impact & difference I make in peoples lives. Thank you for making my heart so full, you two girls are going to go so far in life!,” wrote Marsh via her Instagram page.

Nationwide surveys found that anxiety and depression soared in young and old people during COVID’s stretch of isolation, and online school did not satisfy the basic human need for in-person contact and interaction. Use and dependence and social media increased, providing a platform that allowed communication between peers, but also opportunities for bullying.

Recognizing and not ignoring the signs of mental and emotional turmoil in young people is key to catching problems before they become entrenched. “It’s important to let [kids] know you’re here for them, whether or not they’re ready to talk. Just getting them to the right resources if they need that extra help” can have a life-changing impact, Marsh said. The stigma around mental health has been lessening over time, but it’s time to “have those stigmas finally get put to rest.”

“Behavioral health and substance abuse services are so important to our community members,” said DeCarli. The Bridge to Recovery Walk where Marsh will speak will help ensure that recovery programs and services are widely available regardless of income — and demand has steadily increased since before COVID, DeCarli said.

The walk, which is slightly less than two miles, is family-friendly and includes a pancake breakfast. Registration is $30 per person, and participants are encouraged but not required to seek outside donations. For information and to sign up, visit ch-trust.org.

GSNC 2 ColorThese articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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