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.
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.
“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.