Ally Harrup’s mother pushed her to make silly faces at other people’s babies in public. To be the kind of girl who laughs loud enough for the whole bookstore to hear.
Patricia Harrup was the “mom taxi” to Ally’s friends, someone who gave them rides everywhere.
She told Ally to speak the truth even when her voice faltered. Patricia’s voice, soft-spoken and often shy, remains a comfort in Ally’s memory.
Patricia Harrup, 46, died two years ago after a prolonged illness when Ally was a sophomore at Idaho Falls High School.
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“I thought that when a parent died it was like the movies, all beautiful, like my mom was in a better place. And then I realized it’s not even close,” Ally, 18, said.
Patricia’s death triggered Ally’s generalized anxiety and panic disorder. She thought she had stomach problems for a while because she always felt like throwing up.
“At first it didn’t hit me. ‘OK. This is weird. My mom is dead now.’ Then six months later I was hit with my very first panic attack,” Ally said.
She still gets them. At times Ally can’t breathe, can’t speak, can’t think. Extremities ache and buzz; her heart races. Sometimes Ally has to call in to her job at Papa Tom’s Pizza and tell them she’s going to be an hour late to work because she can’t safely drive.
“The first panic attack I saw,” said Dana Wolford, Ally’s closest friend, “Ally was hyperventilating on my bathroom floor, dry heaving. I sat and cried with her. I had no clue how to help.”
The anxiety brought depression. It became hard for Ally to get out of bed in the morning, to go to school and socialize.
She cut herself and had suicidal thoughts.
“I had no idea I’d be susceptible to mental disorders. To me it was the way most people think about cancer. Maybe you know someone who had it, but that could never happen to me,” Ally said.
Apart from her own experiences, Ally has seen the effects of mental illness around her community. It’s claimed friends.
For her senior project, Ally created an informational presentation about mental illness and suicide in order to educate people.
“People say, ‘It’s all in your head.’ Well, that asthma is all in your lungs; the drowning is all in your chest,” Ally said.
People would care more about suicide if they stopped thinking it was a choice.
Idaho’s suicide problem
While other major causes of death decline in the U.S., suicide rates continue to climb, this year hitting a 30-year high, according to a report released in April by the National Center for Health Statistics.
From 1999 to 2014, suicides increased by 24 percent. It isn’t known why numbers have grown since tapering down in the ’80s and ’90s.
Idaho resides within the “suicide belt.” Coined by Temple University sociologist Matt Wrey, the belt refers to a string of Western states — Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and Utah — with suicide rates far exceeding the national average.
In 2013, Idaho had the nation’s seventh-highest suicide rate. Among Idahoans ages 15-34, it’s the second-leading cause of death, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho.
There’s no clear explanation, though the stigma of weakness associated with mental disorders likely plays a part.
“I think it’s just our culture. We’re told from a very young age: Don’t cry, suck it up, rub dirt on it. So if we have these feelings and emotions that aren’t accepted, then people aren’t as likely to ask for help,” said Jeni Griffin, the Suicide Prevention Network’s executive director. “Also, we lack horribly for good, affordable mental health care in the state.”
Griffin believes there’s a breakdown in care for people who seek treatment for their disorders. Part of that, she said, comes from inadequate professional training.
“A lot of our counselors and professionals are not currently well-educated in suicide prevention assessment,” Griffin said.
Many individuals who receive treatment for mental health disorders don’t receive follow-ups from counselors or doctors.
“After someone goes home, what are their resources?” Griffin said. “After a crisis, triggers can set that person off again.”
There’s also the problem of getting people to see counselors or doctors in the first place.
“Most people go in and have physical health checkups twice a year, and they’re more worried about having their teeth cleaned than having their mental health assessed,” Griffin said.
Subsequently, a lot of people don’t seek help.
Presenting her emotions
One of Ally’s friends committed suicide last June. Another friend did the same a few months later. Another followed about six months later.
“I’ve noticed that suicides can come in strings. One person kills themselves, and others see how much someone is missed, and it almost gives them the courage to do it,” Ally said. “I’m just waiting to hear about the next one.”
Ally didn’t realize she had anxiety and depression until some friends noticed symptoms.
“When her mom passed it was like a light switched in her brain,” Wolford said. “Days after her passing, Ally looked dead. She was lifeless. She’d sit in her room and think about all the things she never got to say to her mom.”
After her fifth or sixth panic attack, a friend gave Ally a Xanax. (The prescription drug is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.) She freaked out; the panic worsened.
“After that, I realized this isn’t how I should deal with this,” Ally said. “I’m trying pills from my friend. This is not a good idea.”
Ally also has seasonal affective disorder. The first winter after Patricia died was difficult — dark at 5 p.m., cold, gray, cloudy.
A doctor prescribed Lexapro, an antidepressant, but it didn’t help. It evened out Ally’s emotions, she said, but she also couldn’t feel happy. She spent her days in a fog.
“Once she was on it for a while she thought she was going crazy. She started experiencing derealization,” Wolford said.
Ally quit taking the drug in March. Since then, she’s developed breathing exercises for panic attacks and worked through different cognitive therapy.
Though she has more tools for dealing with abrupt emotional swings, some things still are triggers. In May, she went dress shopping for prom and broke into anger in the dressing room.
“My friend told me to calm down and asked if I was OK. And I finally realized that my mom should be here; this is crap,” Ally said.
She plans to study psychology at Boise State University. She wants to become a grief counselor.
Learning to cope with her loss, Ally found no solace in pity.
“When my mom died, people would approach me almost the way you would approach a wounded squirrel,” Ally said. “My mom wasn’t a tragedy. Her death might have been, but that’s not all she was, and that’s not all I am.”
And although medication and therapy work for many, they didn’t for Ally, the latter being too invasive, she said.
For Ally and Griffin, an important step to mitigate mental illness is simple, mundane compassion.
For those struggling with depression, it can mean reaching out to someone. For a friend or loved one, it means recognizing warning signs.
“Something as simple as a phone call or going to coffee with somebody. Checking in gives them some kind of purpose — they feel like they belong,” Griffin said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.