Mental Health hits home: Part Two of a five-part series offering local perspectives as May is observed as Mental Health Awareness Month

Matt and Shelly Howe ...
Matt and Shelly Howe ...

by Dwight Jones

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, designed to raise awareness and combat the stigma that often surrounds this medical condition. Discussing mental health and/or acknowledging you or someone you know may have a problem can be a difficult subject to talk about and even harder to understand.

In order to try to better recognize mental health issues, The Standard is running a five-part series throughout the month to look at how mental illness affects local families, law enforcement, social workers, etc.

Part One of the five-part series in last week’s edition of The Standard told the story of a 19-year-old local college student that suffers from severe anxiety and depression that has used medication and therapy to get well. Unfortunately, not all stories of those struggling with mental health have a happy ending.

Matt Howe was a lifelong resident of the Waukon area. He was a 1988 graduate of Waukon High School, married his high school sweetheart, Shelly (Fossum) Howe, in 1994 and they went on to have two wonderful kids. Matt was very well known and liked throughout the community, lived in a beautiful home, had a good job, and from the outside looking in, he had it made.

Another thing Matt had was mental illness, something he struggled with nearly his entire life. He first attempted suicide in sixth grade, would go on to attempt it three or four more times, and then finally succumbed to his condition by ending his own life in February 2018. We recently sat down with Shelly to learn more about his struggles and hopefully shed some light on the demons that ultimately took her husband’s life.

Matt and Shelly dated for seven years prior to being married for 23 years. Early on in their 30-year relationship she recognized that he had some of what she refers to as “brain health” issues, but she believed that God had put her on this earth to save him and she set out to do just that. She came to be able to recognize when he was struggling, and over time with Shelly alongside, Matt would seek treatment from both therapists and medical doctors alike to combat his issues.

Shelly describes Matt’s battle with brain health as being similar to a hamster wheel. Things would be going well, then he would do something he would regret or be embarrassed by which would cause anxiety and depression, which would cause him to do more things he would regret and, well, one can get the picture.

Shelly felt she could recognize Matt going to a dark place even more quickly than he could. Oftentimes, these bouts of darkness would include sleeping for excessive amounts of time. Shelly would make excuses to friends and family as to why Matt wasn’t available when in actuality he was at home physically unable to get out of bed due to severe depression. She would play “cheerleader”, suggest they go visit a therapist or doctor, things would temporarily improve and then the whole process would repeat. This went on for years, and eventually, decades.

During the last two years of Matt’s life his struggles spiraled out of control. Though publicly he was always jovial and fun, behind the curtains of the Howe house, things were anything but. Shelly describes dealing with Matt’s brain issues as “exhausting”, with every day starting with the same question - “what will today bring?”

Throughout much of his adult life, Matt would on and off attend therapy meetings but according to Shelly, he would address only the high level stuff that was causing him current anxiety, be it finances, work-related issues, etc. He was never willing to address the things in his life that started it all, the root causes, and this, Shelly feels, was a large part of the reason he was never able to get well.

Unlike many others that are medicated for mental health, Matt was always good about taking his “crazy pills,” as he called them, but they, nor Shelly’s love, were simply not enough to save him.

When asked about regrets, Shelly fortunately was able to answer that she really doesn’t have any in regard to caring for Matt. She wishes her kids wouldn’t have had to see and experience everything they have, but she is comfortable that she fought Matt’s fight with him, right by his side, just like God had wanted, until the very end.

When asked for what advice she could give others struggling with similar brain health issues, Shelly’s comments were directed at those with the mental illness - “you have to take ownership of your life and do what is needed to be healthy. Those that love you can call and make appointments, drive you there, pick up your prescriptions and so on, but you have to want to get better.”

With all that said, Shelly knows Matt wanted to get better. She stated that “Matt worked really, really, really hard” to get better, but long-term life experiences, genetics and who knows what else simply pushed him past the point of rescue and reason. It’s an all too common story.

In an effort to further raise awareness on mental health issues, Shelly has started the “Matt Howe Tribute Endowment”, the mission statement of which, in part, reads “Our hope is to take a proactive approach with suicide awareness and prevention. We need to keep this topic at the forefront of conversations. Information and help need to be regularly provided, not just after something tragic happens. Resources for those suffering from a loss also need to be readily available.”

More information on Matt’s endowment can be found at

If you or someone you know has mental health concerns, there is a wide variety of resources where help and information can be found. Make an appointment with your family doctor or see a therapist. Also, the National Institute of Mental Health has a website with a tremendous amount of helpful information that can be found at In severe cases, dial 988 from any phone to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline offered 24 hours of every day through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.