I’m Emma Mitchell and I want to talk about mental wellbeing.
Let me start by saying that the last year has probably been one of the most difficult years of my life, professionally and off the pitch. I missed the Women’s World Cup and although we won the Women’s Super League, I’ve had a lot of personal troubles that I’ve had to face.
It’s been tough, but now I’m happy to speak about it.
It’s weird because I never actually realised how I was feeling at the time, until one day something happened and I knew something wasn’t quite right. I was in training one day and I got hit in the face. It’s one of those things where as a footballer, you just shrug it off and get on with things but on this occasion…
Well, I literally just broke down. I was breaking down over someone hitting me in the face a tiny little bit. I went off to the side and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I am really not OK’.
I’d always used football as my escape, so when stuff wasn’t going so well off the pitch, I could deal with it. But then when things weren’t going well on the pitch either, like not performing well or having a persistent, niggly injury, it all came to a boiling point.
I got injured at the end of last year, nipped my cartilage, and then coming back really quickly from that and not actually getting the proper time to do some rehab… that probably affected my performance. Then there was the added pressure that the club were on the verge of winning the league, and that we’d have to win every single game. Stuff like that was really important to me.
There were things away from the pitch, too, family stuff that I’d never actually dealt with. My uncle committed suicide when we were younger and my mum was in hospital because she’d had an overdose. I found room for that emotionally, but then it all got a bit too much and my bucket kind of over spilled.
I was really low, in a way that I didn’t want to socialise with anybody. That I’d just want to spend all day in my bed. Even coming into the training ground was a massive task for me and I’ve never felt that way before.
Throughout my whole career I’ve loved coming into training. It’s always felt like a hobby rather than a job, and that I’m lucky to be able to do something I love every day. But then I would be this really daunting thing like, ‘Oh my God, this is my job, I can’t mess this up’.
I wasn’t enjoying it whatsoever but then I couldn’t escape from it either. I would just be in this really low, low mood the whole time. It felt like I had a constant pressure on my chest, like someone was standing on top of me and I couldn’t get them off.
It all got too much for me and I remember one day going up to Joe after a training session and saying, ‘OK, I need help’, and then the next day I was able to speak to a psychologist. I think the experiences with my uncle and mum made me realise that I needed help before I got to a point where I didn’t want to be in that situation. For the first time, I felt like I was able to just talk and start the progress of feeling better again.
I’ve never really spoken about this, as a whole, to the whole team. Obviously there have been girls that I’m really close with like Lisa, Viv, Katie and Kim, who I would share everything with. They pretty much know what happened but as a whole team, I don’t think anyone really knew what was going on or why, so hopefully this will help them understand too.
It’s only probably now that I’m honest about when I’m feeling anxious or not having a great day, and the girls will say, ‘Well how can we help? What can we do to make you feel better?’ It’s only now that I’m willing to accept any help because before, I never wanted to burden anyone else.
In the end, I had nothing to worry about. Lisa and Kim have been the ones who have been there the whole time for me and I’ve been able to lean on them with no judgement. That was a massive thing for me, to be able to share how I was feeling and to have them there to help me.
It was so beneficial to have them there, so I didn’t have to take all the pressure or the feelings by myself. They were there to listen, to say, ‘It’s OK’ and stuff like that. That was a massive thing that you never really think will have such a massive impact on somebody until you’re in that situation yourself.
After all, this is an issue that’s not spoken about enough, not at all. It’s like an off-the-cuff comment sometimes, but you just presume they’ve got a bit of a headache or period cramp, or something like that. You never really actually give the time to sit with somebody and say, ‘Look mate, are you OK?’
Maybe if that had happened to me I wouldn’t have felt as low as I actually did, but I guess that’s the whole point. It’s about being able to have a conversation and actually being able to speak about how we’re feeling. We need to make it comfortable for somebody to say, ‘I’m not OK’.
I was able to do that and once I’d spoken to Joe, after that time I broke down in training, I told him that I needed to get away from the football environment, away from Arsenal for a bit. So I jumped on a train two days later and I immediately felt so much lighter, like somebody just got off my shoulders.
I can’t really remember much about my journey back home, it just felt like a movie where you’re seeing all the fields go past and stuff. I do remember when I got home, though – I just slept for the first three days. I’d been physically and emotionally drained, I just needed to sleep and feel that someone was looking after me at home.
That same day that my dad picked me up from the train station, I remember being in Sainsbury’s car park and phoning Shelley Kerr to tell her what was going on. I was in tears, saying that I was feeling this way and needed to step away from football to manage myself.
It was all good, she was saying she supported me and whatever they could do for me, they could. I felt quite positive in a way, that I could take this time and then come back to get the chance to be selected. I phoned her again maybe two or three weeks later but didn’t hear anything from her until I found out I hadn’t been selected for the Scotland World Cup squad.
That was really difficult for me to take because I’d worked so hard physically and mentally to be in a position to go to the World Cup, but it’s crazy to think that if I’d never actually asked for help, I could have potentially gone to the World Cup in such a bad place but because I was playing every single week, it would be OK.
Now after it’s all died down and that, I would rather feel the way I do now compared to the start of the year. That’s something I’m really, really proud of.
I feel like for footballers, if you do speak about it, you feel maybe you’ll be getting judged on it. Like if I was to say, ‘I’m not feeling great today’, would that affect my selection on a Sunday? It then becomes easier for me to not say anything so that I can just play a game.
It’s all about communication and there’s a lack of that. There’s also a lack of understanding about how much the mental side of the game can then affect performance. It’s massive. It’s important for people to be comfortable and say, ‘I’m not OK, I need help’.
I want to make it a normal thing that people are having a conversation about. You should be able to tell someone when you’re not feeling great, and you should be able to get the support to get you back to feeling 100 per cent. Your mental wellbeing is just as important whether you’re a footballer or a dog walker.
Anyway… after a while at home, I was starting to miss playing again. I just thought, ‘This is good’ because when I was at my lowest point, football was never on my mind and I wasn’t really bothered about it. I didn’t even want to play anymore because the pressure was too much. But then, after three weeks away, I was ready to come back and get back into training.
In my first two or three weeks back, I was working in the gym and then coming in just for lunch on one of the days. Then the next day I would come in for the morning, do some gym, recover and go home. The club pretty much allowed me to do as much or as little as I wanted until I felt comfortable enough to say, ‘OK, I’m ready to go back into training’.
Then it was all about doing work with the fitness guys to build me back up to fitness, and within six weeks I was back in full training with the team. The club really supported me and made it such an easy transition to come back into football.
They also introduced me to Suzanne, the psychologist we have at the club. At first I remember saying, ‘Ah, you won’t see me, I won’t need to come and speak to you’ but then within a month, I was literally tapping on her door in tears.
The biggest thing she’s taught me is to make room for my feelings. The best example I can think of is when we won we won the WSL at Brighton last season. Everybody was delighted and I just couldn’t celebrate. I didn’t even want to, I just felt terrible.
It was probably one of the worst days that I’d felt and it was on a day when everyone else was buzzing. I just felt so far away from it because I hadn’t been playing the games. I was just sitting on the bench, trying to be part of this unbelievable feeling.
I remember afterwards that I was smiling for the camera outside but then when I got into the shower, while the girls were having champagne, I was just crying. I know… I’m proud to have been able to do that because I’m not masking the hurt any more – this is how I feel.
Right then, I was making room for my feelings, just like Suzanne had taught me. That was how I was feeling at the time and I just cried for 10 to 15 minutes in the shower. After that, I was fine. We partied for the rest of the night and I had a great time, but I knew that I had to help find this room to feel how I felt, instead of just bottling it up like I’d done previously.
We did a lot of work like that, and also on finding where my anxiety and low mood came from. We were trying to identify it early so that we could try to stop it from happening. It was like a little triangle, so if I knew I was doing this to avoid that, I would never experience the other thing. That was a massive way of me being able to move forward.
I’m back now and although there are some days where I wake up and don’t feel as great as I usually do, I can usually identify exactly why I’m feeling that way. Sometimes it can be something like feeling anxious about making a phonecall but I know that if I leave it until the end of the day, it’s just going to sit on me. So I just make the phonecall and then it’s done.
I’m still speaking to Suzanne, the psychologist, or Shanita who I’ve also been seeing recently but it’s never because I’m feeling low. It’s maybe just a problem that I just need another opinion on. Sometimes it’s even to just check in and say, ‘I’m good’. That’s where I’m at now.
Things have improved on the pitch, too. Coming back last season to score that goal on the final day against Manchester City… well that meant everything to me. You could probably see from my reaction that I’m actually trying not to cry.
It was a really emotional day for me because I’d been at the club for such a long time and had never won the league, and then for us to do that, I just felt like it was written in the stars for that to happen to me.
Like, I’ve never scored goals and then to score a goal like that… wow! It was really nice and my family were there to see it as well. My reaction says it all, I was just really, really emotional because I’d worked so hard to get back to that point. I felt like I deserved it. It was my moment and it was so nice to have it in that game.
Like I said, I’ve worked hard to come back so now it’s up to me to keep working on my mental health being great. I’ll keep going to see the psychologist, even if it is just to go in and say hello or that I’m doing well that week. That’ll be my normal now, which is good. It’s where everybody should be.
On the pitch, I want to be fully fit, playing week in, week out. I want to be in the national team, wearing the Scotland jersey again, and being happy enjoying my football. I want to be playing it with a smile on my face and, of course, just getting stuck into dirty tackles.
That’s me, Mitch. That’s what I’m about. And I can’t wait.
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