This year, the world has gone the extra mile to break down the stigma surrounding mental health.
It took two big sports stars to stand up and publicly admit their struggles before the voices of those in pain began to be heard.
Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were the two brave athletes who triggered a huge ripple effect that has now allowed people to speak freely and comfortably about what has been considered taboo for so long.
But in fact, mental health issues are extremely common and affect more people than some realize.
According to Mind, one in six people in England report suffering from a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week. In addition, one in five people admit to having had thoughts of suicide while one in 15 tries to kill themselves.
It could be the stranger behind you in the queue for a coffee. It could be the co-worker you chat with every morning before your shift. It could even be a longtime friend who is too ashamed to speak.
Or it could be your hero – an icon in the sport you love so much.
Arsenal and England legend Kelly Smith has opened up about his personal issues with mental health in this exclusive interview with GiveMeSport Women.
It was in 2004, five years after Kelly decided to leave the UK and explore her opportunities across the pond. The forward had played with Hope Solo at Philadelphia Charge, until the Women’s United Soccer Association – the world’s premier professional women’s football league – was disbanded.
Kelly also suffered two serious knee injuries during her time in Philadelphia, and with no team to play for, she quickly lost focus on her goal.
I was embarrassed because I was ‘Kelly Smith, the English footballer’. I was kind of an icon and just couldn’t perform and couldn’t do the job that I loved.
âThe league dissolved so I was in the United States looking for work,â she explained. âI joined the semi-pro team in New Jersey and was living on my own, had just broken my leg and just had no support network around me.
âThere was no one to talk to – no sports psychologists on the team and I wasn’t connected enough with many of my teammates to have a conversation about how I was feeling. I was just very, very alone.”
Kelly admitted that things went so badly in the United States that she had thoughts of suicide.
âIt was a very dark and lonely place. I didn’t know who to turn to and I was embarrassed to be in such a sad and horrible state. I sat with it for months and months and months. .
“I was using alcohol to numb myself and forget about the fact that I couldn’t play football, something that was my passion.”
I was suicidal but luckily I didn’t do anything with it.
Eventually, Kelly found the strength to do what so many people with mental health problems fear most: tell someone.
It is her father on whom she chose to lean in her most fragile moment. And he rushed straight to her rescue – flying to the United States to pack Kelly’s things and get her daughter home safely.
But being back in the comfort of his home was just the start of a long recovery. Admitting that she was not doing well was Kelly’s first step in getting back into football and, unbeknownst to her at the time, building a legacy that would be admired for decades to come.
âWhen I was open and honest and talked about my feelings, that’s when I was on the road to recovery,â Kelly said. âI didn’t want to play football anymore – I had had enough. I kept getting those wounds and it took a toll on me.
“I said I didn’t want to play anymore and that was huge for me because that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do in my life. Play at the highest level possible, play for England, play professionally.”
It was former Arsenal manager Vic Akers who caught Kelly at the right time and brought her back to her place.
After a few training sessions with her former club, the striker stepped down for the Gunners, where she completely rekindled her passion on the pitch and became one of England’s greatest footballers of all time.
Kelly would go on to make 156 total appearances for Arsenal, scoring 130 goals and winning all domestic trophies with his beloved side. Not to mention having played three EUROs and two World Cups with England, in addition to representing Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics.
She has since been inducted into the Women’s Super League Hall of Fame.
âThe Olympics were the ultimate goal for me,â said Kelly. âAnd looking back on it now, you don’t quite appreciate what you’ve done. It’s only when we’ve had conversations like this that you realize how far you’ve come.
“I guess I’m applauding myself in a way and just saying how happy I was to come out of it all and put myself on this Olympic team.”
More sports figures are speaking out about mental health like never before. As someone who competes to use his experience to help others, Kelly is in awe of those who continue to work to eliminate stigma.
Just because you are one of the elite in your sport doesn’t mean that all is well.
Kelly spoke about the immense pressure that elite level athletes are under and the training effects this can have on mental well-being. She applauded Osaka and Biles for openly discussing their internal battles.
âIt’s a tough place to live when there’s extra pressure, when you have to win all the time. If you put your hand up and say, ‘I’m fighting,’ it normalizes them and normalizes sanity.
“Just because you’re in the top tier of your sport doesn’t mean you’re all right. They’re just normal people after all.”
The English centurion recently became a patron of the mental health charity ‘We Mind & Kelly Matters’ – an organization created in memory of Kelly Hewitt, who sadly took her own life in 2018.
Kelly Hewitt was a longtime Arsenal supporter who idolized Kelly Smith. So, after being approached by betting company BK8 to donate to a chosen charity, the Arsenal icon guided her Â£ 15,000 donation to We Mind & Kelly Matters.
“I was stunned and obviously quite emotional about it [joining the charity] but I just wanted to give back and try to help in any way I can. “
ENTER THE CONTEST
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