Idaho State’s Haley Harrison still fighting off the darkness

The darkness rolls in like an invisible fog, draping over every thought, compounding until the internal agony becomes unbearable.

Haley Harrison built a facade to mask its clutches, swallowing the mental torment to avoid any appearance of weakness. A senior softball player at Idaho State, she had been taught all her life to be mentally strong, to tamp down vulnerabilities.

Three times the darkness — and the weight of trying to suppress it — overwhelmed Harrison. Her exhausted mind saw no way out except through the bottom of a pill bottle.

With Harrison’s third suicide attempt came an escape route.

She got a proper diagnosis, not just the “you’re depressed” she heard so many times. She received the help, the medication she needed to avoid following the path her brother took more than a decade ago.

The dark thoughts are still there. At least now Harrison can recognize when the mental illness tries to take over, find ways to fend it off.

“It’s not that I don’t have those thoughts anymore, but I tell myself it’s going to be OK; even though this is happening, it’s going to be OK,” she said. “Maybe it won’t be better tomorrow or the next day, but eventually it’s going to get better and I’m going to have better thoughts in my head.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for college students is 7.5 suicides per 100,000 students.

The student-athlete suicide rate is lower, 0.93 per 100,000.

The numbers transpose when it comes to asking for help.

A survey conducted by University of Michigan School of Public Health associate professor Daniel Eisenberg showed 33% of students experienced significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. Of those, 30% sought help.

College athletes? Only 10%.

Acknowledging or even recognizing mental-health issues is tough for anyone.

For athletes, it’s a stigma, goes against everything ingrained by coaches and parents since they were young.

Weakness limits your ability to succeed. Weakness will be exploited by opponents. Weakness lets your teammates down.

The darkness inside becomes a weakness to quash, the pressure inside building like an overfilled water balloon.

“We don’t teach people how to properly express and cope with our emotions, so they’re naturally going to bury them inside,” said Dr. Hillary Cauthen, a certified mental performance consultant and Association for Applied Sport Psychology E-Board member. “Then it gets confusing and it’s kind of like a hydraulic process; You’re shaking up a soda bottle, eventually it’s just going to release it.”

A 9-year-old Haley didn’t understand the role of a coroner when she saw the car parked outside her house.

It was a Saturday morning. Her father, Randy, just brought home McDonald’s and Haley was getting ready for a softball game.

The coroner arrived to tell the Harrisons that Allan, their 20-year-old son, had committed suicide, turning their world upside down.

“I didn’t even know what suicide was then,” Haley said. “I just saw my parents just breakdown, crying. I said, ‘Mom and dad, what’s going on?’ All they could explain to me was that my brother wasn’t going to be around anymore.”

Harrison’s first glimpse into the darkness, even if she didn’t immediately understand it, cast a shadow on the rest of her life.

Suicide survivors often feel a sense of guilt and responsibility. They can have a wide range of emotions, from intense anger and resentment to shame and worthlessness.

Anxiety and depression can become overwhelming.

“It had a huge impact on her and all of us, still to this day, not knowing why,” Haley’s mother, Cheryl, said. “It’s a nobody-talks-about-it type thing, so it probably internalized even more for her. He was very close to his little sister and I’m sure it was very traumatic.”

Haley’s first suicide attempt came at 14. She showed signs of depression and had mood swings, but the full grip of mental illness often stays hidden in the corners of the mind.

Haley spent a week at a mental institution, underwent endless tests. She was diagnosed as depressed, fed a slew of antidepressants.

Haley hated the way the meds made her feel and she stopped taking them, returning to the veneer of OK on the outside, mentally churning inside.

Even after becoming a Division I athlete at Utah Valley University to fulfill a lifelong dream, her mind began spiraling again.

Haley reached out to the team doctor and was prescribed more antidepressants, against her best wishes.

She became ill, lost 20 pounds. Feeling bullied by teammates or not getting much support, Haley attempted suicide a second time.

“I just felt so isolated and no one was helping me, no one wanted to help me,” Haley said. “The stigma behind mental health, people just don’t know how to act. They don’t know how to help a lot of the time.”

The stigma has loosened in recent years as more athletes have gone public.

Olympic swimmer Mark Phelps recently revealed his fight against depression and thoughts of suicide following his second drunken-driving arrest. He also partnered with Talkspace, which provides online therapy.

NBA All-Star Kevin Love wrote a first-person piece in the Players’ Tribune last year describing his battles with anxiety and depression, including the panic attack he suffered at halftime of a game in 2017.

NFL receiver Brandon Marshall took a similar tact, detailing his mental-health struggles and 2011 diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in the Players’ Tribune.

Haley made the difficult and courageous decision to share her mental-health struggles after her third suicide attempt, posting a story on the Idaho State athletics website that took her months to get the words and the message just right.

“For athletes to share the experience of mental illness, it makes people realize, I’m not alone in this struggle,” Dr. Cauthen said. “It helps normalize situations like this at a whole new level.”

Following her second suicide attempt, Haley had another hospital stint, withdrew from Utah Valley.

Her softball career was over.

Or so she thought.

Idaho State coach Candi Letts recruited Haley out of her Las Vegas-area high school and learned from a former coach she had left Utah Valley.

Haley’s softball career, resurrected.

The darkness, still lurking.

Within a month of arriving in Pocatello, the self-destructive thoughts started circling Haley’s mind again. With her parents back in Henderson, Nevada, and the team about to start practice, Haley attempted suicide for a third time.

Letts intervened.

In the short time she coached Haley, Letts noticed signs of depression; the highs and lows, the personality changes.

So when Haley didn’t show up for practice, Letts didn’t treat it is just another player missing practice. She raced over to Haley’s apartment.

“Her little friend, her puppy, was at the door but not really happy to see me,” Letts said. “I saw Haley was not in a good situation. I made her come to practice with me, got her going, made sure she would not do anything to really hurt herself even though she had taken some pills she probably shouldn’t have taken.”

Haley was given an ultimatum. If she wanted to continue playing, she would have to go home and get a proper diagnosis.

She did. After another week in a mental health facility, she finally got the answer she had needed for the better part of a decade: bipolar 2 disorder and borderline personality disorder.

The diagnosis, the proper medication, the support at Idaho State and home, has Haley on a good mental plane.

The internal struggle is still there, likely will be the rest of her life. Haley now has the means to stave it off — or at least ask for help when she needs it.

“I don’t feel like I have to hide it because the people that I am surrounded by, they understand what I’m going through,” she said. “I just feel comfortable being myself and they know what’s going on in my head and are there to support me.”

Haley, now 23, has gone two years without a suicide attempt. She’s in the Idaho State master’s program for athletic administration and may pursue a career in sports information.

She will continue to fight the darkness every day.

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