POCATELLO — Haley Harrison faked happiness for years.
Through her successful high school softball career and journey to Division I athletics, Harrison smiled her way through the pain no one could see.
Harrison lived life staring across an abyss of agony for much of her teenage and young adult years, battling mental illness.
The hurt was constant, and Harrison was at a crossroads. She left Utah Valley University as a sophomore in 2016, giving up the sport she loved since she was 4 years old after her mental health continued to deteriorate.
Harrison landed at Idaho State for the 2017 softball season after a phone call from ISU coach Candi Letts. The junior enrolled at Idaho State, but her mental health battle continued.
Harrison attempted suicide within a month after starting at Idaho State.
Harrison and the softball team agreed on her returning home to Las Vegas to get a proper diagnosis. Harrison was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder and borderline personality disorder.
The information helped Harrison begin her new life.
The Idaho State senior infielder revealed her journey through mental illness with a story on Idaho State Athletics’ website in April and wants to spark a conversation about the stigma surrounding athletes who struggle with mental health.
“Athletes are expected to be strong,” Harrison told the Journal. “If you have any weakness, you are not an athlete. I personally tried to hold it in. ... When you’re on the field, you’re expected to get rid of everything. That puts more pressure on you.”
‘LIFE BECAME REAL’
Harrison’s life began changing as a 9-year-old when her brother died by suicide.
Harrison could not understand the whirlwind of emotions filling her day-to-day life. She did not know why her brother took his own life, and she was struggling to cope. That’s when she said she first experienced depression.
“I started questioning if he didn’t want to be here, why am I here?” Harrison said. “Trying to go through life without a sibling was tough. Life became very real at a young age. That is what started it all.”
Harrison carried the weight of her emotions throughout her teenage years, never revealing her suffering to those close to her.
When Harrison was 14 years old, she attempted suicide for the first time.
“Bottling up your emotions builds up until the bottle breaks,” Harrison said. “That is when you get the suicide attempts, the self-harm, the isolation. You try so hard to hide it and act like it’s normal. Eventually, you reach your breaking point.”
The high-schooler was later diagnosed with depression and supplied medication. Harrison said the medication did not help, and she stopped taking them. She became removed from her family, kept to herself, and never left her bedroom. She also said good friends stopped talking to her after the first suicide attempt.
Harrison did not feel in control of her life, so she dyed her hair, got piercings and tattoos to obtain “the only sense of control,” she said.
Through her battle with mental illness, Harrison excelled on the softball field, playing four combined years on varsity at Palo Verde and Coronado High Schools in Nevada and winning a state championship in 2014.
She earned a scholarship after high school to Utah Valley, where she played in 32 games as a freshman. She started 17 games and had a .196 batting average.
Harrison’s second suicide attempt came as a sophomore at UVU.
“I bottled my emotions even more after my first (suicide attempt),” Harrison said. “I already showed my weakness, so I had to regather my strength and show everyone that is not what I was about. Even though deep down, that is who I was at the time.”
After being diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder and borderline personality disorder, Harrison returned to Idaho State and was overwhelmed by the support.
Harrison’s teammates were always checking in on her and were proactive about supporting their teammate. That was something Harrison said she never felt before.
“My coaches and teammates were the first ones to push me to get better,” Harrison said. “They really believed in me, knowing I was more than my mental illness. They just wanted me to get better.”
“I feel like I can finally be myself,” Harrison added. “I don’t feel like I have to fit in. This is me, take it or leave it.”
Harrison feels she has turned the corner at Idaho State. She is seeing a psychiatrist, taking her medication and excelling on the softball field. Harrison is batting .261 this season, third-best among Bengals who have played in at least 20 games. She also has a .976 fielding percentage, tops of any player who has appeared in at least 20 games.
Harrison is an example of the one-in-five adults in America who experience a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The ISU senior has not let her mental illness define her.
“We embraced her and gave her a shot to be the person she wanted to be,” Letts said. “We are getting the best of Haley Harrison.”
Harrison is far from finished on and off the softball field. The Bengals (20-25) qualified for the 2019 Big Sky Conference tournament as the No. 2 seed. They open play Wednesday against the winner of the matchup between No. 3 Montana and No. 6 Northern Colorado at Sacramento State’s Shea Stadium.
Harrison, who earned all-conference honorable mention honors Tuesday, also graduated May 4 with a master’s in athletic administration and a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
She is attempting to normalize the conversation surrounding athletes and their mental health by sharing her story.
“I never thought I’d make it to see 21 years old,” Harrison said. “I wish myself could talk to my 12-year-old self and tell her it’s going to be OK.”
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
Other crisis resources can be found here.