Kelly Smith praises Simone Biles as Arsenal legend shares mental health struggles

Kelly Smith We Mind & Kelly Matters

This year, the world has chipped away that little bit more at breaking the stigma surrounding mental health.

It took two major sporting stars to stand up and publicly admit to their struggles before the voices of those suffering started to be heard.

Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were the two brave athletes to start an enormous ripple effect that has now got people talking freely and comfortably about what has been viewed for so long as a taboo subject.

But in fact, mental health problems are extremely common, and affect more people than some may expect.

According to Mind, one in six people in England report experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week. Furthermore, one in five admit to experiencing suicidal thoughts while one in 15 attempt to take their own life.

It could be the stranger behind you in the queue for a coffee. It could be the work colleague you chat to every morning before your shift. It could even be a lifelong friend who is too ashamed to speak up.

Or it could be your hero – an icon in the sport you love so much.

Arsenal and England legend Kelly Smith opened up about her personal struggles with mental health in this exclusive interview with GiveMeSport Women.

Kelly Smith

It was 2004, five years on from Kelly's decision to leave the UK and explore her opportunities across the pond. The forward had been playing with the likes of Hope Solo at Philadelphia Charge, until the Women's United Soccer Association – the world's first professional women's soccer league – was disbanded.

Kelly had also picked up two serious knee injuries during her time in Philadelphia, and without a team to play for, she quickly lost focus of her purpose.

I was embarrassed because I was 'Kelly Smith, the footballer from England'. I was kind of an icon out there and I just couldn't perform and I couldn't do the job that I loved.

"The league disbanded so I was out in the States looking for work," she explained. "I joined the semi-professional team in New Jersey and I was living alone, had just broken my leg and I just had no support network around me.

"There was nobody to speak to – no sports psychologists on the team and I didn’t really connect enough with a lot of my teammates in order to have a conversation about how I was feeling. I was just very, very alone."

Kelly admitted things got so bad while out in the States that she was having suicidal thoughts.

Kelly Smith

"It was a very dark, lonely place. I didn’t know which way to turn and I was embarrassed that I was in such a sad, awful state. I sat with that for months and months and months.

"I was using alcohol to numb myself and to forget the fact that I couldn’t play football, something that was my passion."

I was suicidal but fortunately enough I didn’t do anything with that.

Eventually, Kelly found the strength to do what so many mental health sufferers fear the most – tell somebody.

It was her dad who she chose to lean on in her most fragile moment. And he rushed straight to her aid – flying out to the US to pack up Kelly's things and bring his daughter home safe.

But being back in the comfort of home was just the start of a long recovery. Admitting she wasn't okay was Kelly's first step towards getting herself back into football, and, unbeknown to her at the time, building a legacy that would be admired for decades to come.

Kelly Smith

"When I was being open and honest and talking about my feelings, that’s when I was on the road to recovery," Kelly said. "I didn’t want to play football any more – I’d had enough of it. I just kept getting these injury blows and it took its toll on me.

"I said I didn't want to play anymore and that was massive 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 reeled her back in to where she belonged. 

After some training sessions with her former club, the forward re-signed for the Gunners, where she completely reignited her passion on the pitch and went on to become one of the greatest English footballers of all time.

Kelly Smith

Kelly would go on to make 156 total appearances for Arsenal, scoring 130 goals, and winning every single domestic trophy with her beloved team. Not to mention playing at three EUROs and two World Cups with England, plus representing Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics.

She has since been inducted into the Women's Super League Hall of Fame.

"The Olympics for me was the ultimate goal," Kelly reflected. "And looking back on it now, you don't really appreciate what you've done. It's not until we have conversations like this that you realise how far you actually have come.

"I guess I applaud myself in a way and just say how happy I was to come out of all that and put myself in that Olympic squad."

Kelly Smith Team GB

More and more sports personalities are speaking up on mental health than ever before. As someone who vies to use her experience to help others, Kelly is in full admiration of those who continue to work to squash the stigma.

Just because you're at the elite end of your sport, doesn't mean everything is plain sailing.

Kelly spoke of the immense pressure elite level athletes experience, and the knock-on effects it can have on mental wellbeing. She applauded the likes of Osaka and Biles for openly discussing their internal battles.

"It's a difficult place to be when there's added pressure, when you have to win all the time. If you put your hands up and say, 'I'm struggling' then it just normalises them and normalises mental health.

"Just because you're at the elite end of your sport, doesn't mean everything is plain sailing. They are just normal people at the end of the day."

The England centurion recently became a patron of mental health charity 'We Mind & Kelly Matters' – an organisation set up in the memory of Kelly Hewitt, who sadly took her own life in 2018. 

Kelly Hewitt was a lifelong Arsenal supporter who idolised Kelly Smith. So, after being approached by betting company BK8 to donate to a chosen charity, the Arsenal icon guided them to We Mind & Kelly Matters.

"I was gobsmacked and obviously quite emotional about it [joining the charity] but I just wanted to give back and try and help in any way that I can."

Kelly was speaking in her role as an ambassador for BK8, who have donated £15,000 to the charity We Mind & Kelly Matters, who Smith is a patron for.

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