By Julie Galante

Family nurse practitioner Natalie Ball MPA 2024 is passionate about normalizing mental health and wellbeing.

Harvard Wellbeing Week kicks off Monday, March 18, for students to learn about and interact with the wellness resources available to them across the University. The weeklong series of events and discussions is designed to shed light on distinct aspects of mental health—relational, emotional, financial, spiritual, environmental, intellectual, vocational, and physical.

A session on brain energy and stress relief will be held Wednesday, March 20, 3 p.m.—World Happiness Day—in Wexner 434A on the Harvard Kennedy School campus.

We spoke with family nurse practitioner Natalie Ball MPA 2024, who serves on Harvard’s Student Wellbeing Council—the organizers of Harvard Wellbeing Week. Ball also leads the Mental Health & Drug Policy Caucus at HKS and is vice president of health, safety, and wellbeing for the Kennedy School Student Government. She talked about her experience working in health systems in the United States and abroad, the critical importance of self-care, and her certified therapy dog, Tilly.

 
 

Tell us about yourself. What motivated you to go into nursing and healthcare?

I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and took a gap year after high school to travel to Latin America, where I spent most of my time in Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. I found my calling while I was on my journey. I wanted a tangible skill, something I could take with me wherever I went to help heal and relieve anyone in need who was suffering. Nursing and public health would allow me to do that.

I went to Penn Nursing for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. The experience of training to be a nurse shaped my values and worldview, and I was particularly drawn to the nursing care model’s emphasis on care, connection, and community. This holistic approach transformed my whole perspective and underscored the need for self-care. Nursing is physically and mentally demanding, and the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the importance of proper nutrition, movement, sleep, therapy and support, connection, and community. We can’t care for others until we take care of ourselves.

Before I started my graduate program in nursing, I worked for a community development nonprofit in Nicaragua, where I focused on child nutrition, clinical services, community health promotion initiatives, and women’s entrepreneurship programs. I also taught English and women’s reproductive health in local public schools.

After Penn Nursing, I worked as a primary care provider (PCP) in federally qualified health centers and developed an even deeper appreciation of the necessity and complexities of primary care. I decided to shift my focus from global health abroad to health in the United States after seeing firsthand the effects of our country’s fragmented health system and systemic marginalization of communities. Vulnerable patients commonly face barriers to accessing comprehensive health services and the social determinants necessary to live a healthy life.

Natalie Ball MPA 2024 smiling and wearing dark t-shirt and silver necklace.

I was particularly drawn to the nursing care model’s emphasis on care, connection, and community. This holistic approach transformed my whole perspective and underscored the need for self-care.

Natalie Ball MPA 2024

Why did you decide to come to HKS? What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

As a PCP serving high-risk, often underinsured patients in a fragmented health system, my frustrations grew. I saw the urgency for policy intervention and meaningful reform to improve healthcare delivery and outcomes.

After COVID hit, the challenges and suffering were unimaginable and highlighted the deep flaws in the U.S. healthcare system. It felt like the right time to take a pause from my clinical practice.

I chose HKS over a public health degree because I wanted to gain an interdisciplinary understanding of how to address the health fragmentation crisis in the United States, work across sectors and embrace diverse perspectives, and think creatively about solutions.  

I was the MPA Program class representative my first year—just as we were all coming out of the pandemic and healing on so many levels. Many of my classmates voiced the need for better access to information on mental health and support services, and it made me see the urgency to raise awareness and destigmatize mental health on campus. As class rep, I doubled down on advocating for student mental health and its critical connection to our wellbeing.

By establishing the Mental Health and Wellness student caucus (now the Mental Health & Drug Policy Caucus), my goals have been to help cultivate a supportive community where students feel empowered to seek help when they need it, advocate for mental health and drug policy, and create connection at HKS.

My classmates and I are future leaders committed to public service—the weight of our responsibilities can be significant. We simply must prioritize self-care so we can continue to support others without compromising our own health.

Natalie Ball MPA 2024 (left) meeting with classmates to talk about the student support resources at HKS and Harvard.

You founded a direct primary care practice while at HKS. What was that experience like?  

It’s been a fulfilling challenge. I launched Encompass Care Group while I’ve been in the MPA Program, and it has allowed me to pursue an entrepreneurial experience and integrate new insights into my clinical work—I am translating what I’m learning in the classroom into practical healthcare solutions.

Now that Encompass is up and running, I’m turning my attention to growing my practice into a start-up venture that provides a holistic health marketplace. This will expand our services and provide my patients with a more integrated healthcare experience.

Being at Harvard Innovation Labs (iLab) to develop the next phase of Encompass has been a game changer. The iLab’s culture of creativity and entrepreneurship has given me the ideal space to explore and launch an innovative model of primary care that is more holistic, accessible, and effective.

Encompass focuses on root-cause medicine and represents my vision of how healthcare should be—personalized, comprehensive, and attuned to the intricate interplay of factors that impact patients’ health. My approach aims to understand the unique aspects of every patient to provide holistic and sustainable solutions and treatments—the essence of comprehensive and empathetic healthcare.

Why is the conversation about student wellbeing and mental health particularly important now?

Mental health is always important, but now especially. We are still healing post-pandemic but are moving through very heavy, very turbulent times in our hyperpolarized world.

As individuals and as future public leaders and policymakers, we simply have to put in the work to foster a more empathetic environment—in and around us—to create more compassionate public policies that put humans first. But to do this well, we first need to have a certain level of self-awareness, and that’s cultivated through self-care practices.

Flyer posted on wall in Harvard Kennedy School Wexner building announcing World Mental Health Day

My classmates and I are future leaders committed to public service—the weight of our responsibilities can be significant. We simply must prioritize self-care so we can continue to support others without compromising our own health.

Natalie Ball MPA 2024

Which wellness resources at HKS and Harvard would you recommend to students?

Harvard’s resources are incredible. Some I’d recommend are the Center for Wellness and Health Promotion, CAMHS (Counseling and Mental Health Service), TimelyCare, and health and wellbeing events across the University like the upcoming Harvard Wellbeing Week (March 18-23).

At HKS, we’re incredibly lucky to have Jimmy Kane, who has been paramount in helping students feel supported and get the services they need. It is clear Jimmy has created community and connection with HKS students—he keeps us informed and regularly provides ways to help us maintain our health and safety. His webpage is filled with valuable resources for students, and we can always book an appointment to talk with him.

Jimmy Kane (far left) speaks with students in the Wexner Building's Sunshine Lobby about student mental health and wellbeing resources available at HKS and Harvard.

What are some of the ways you maintain your wellbeing in graduate school?

I prioritize my mental health and wellbeing a few ways.  

I walk or bike nearly every day and move my body even if it’s for what I like to call an “exercise snack”—doing squats while my coffee is brewing, jumping jacks between readings, or wall pushups as I print off my paper for class.

I meditate and journal daily, even if it’s just for three minutes. It helps me stay connected to myself, my feelings, my values and purpose. I use meditation apps like Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm, and TimelyCare.

I also love to cook—it’s a way to be present and connected to the food and people right in front of you. And it’s also a way to be creative, save money, and prioritize nutrition. Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food!

And I love hiking in Middlesex Fells with my dog, Tilly, to connect with nature and unwind.

Quality time with friends, unplugging from technology, and even doing nothing help me to recharge. I value my sleep immensely and seek out therapy whenever I need it since I know it’s important to my overall wellbeing.

Together, these practices help me maintain balance so I can stay healthy, present, and energized in my academic and personal life.

And for the dog lovers among us, tell us about Tilly

Tilly is my 8-year-old pup who has been instrumental in my journey and provides endless joy!

I started training Tilly as a certified therapy animal when she was a puppy. She has worked with me at clinics and hospitals to help patients in group therapies or kids afraid of getting their vaccines. I’m grateful to work with her to provide the same love and care she shows to everyone around her.

Tilly, a certified therapy dog, sits in front of a table.

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