As Arsenal’s players popped the champagne corks in celebration after clinching the Women’s Super League title in April, the tears in Emma Mitchell’s eyes were not tears of joy.
While the bubbly was flowing in the away dressing room at Brighton’s Amex Stadium, the Scotland left-back spent 15 minutes crying in the shower.
“The last year has probably been one of the most difficult years in my life,” Mitchell told BBC Sport. “We won the league but, behind that, I’ve had to face a lot of personal troubles.
“When we won the title and everybody was delighted, I didn’t even want to celebrate. I felt terrible.”
Mitchell, renowned as one of the toughest tacklers in the WSL, has been speaking about her experiences with mental wellbeing for the first time.
After taking time out from football and then resuming full training towards the end of last term, the 27-year-old wants others to feel comfortable enough to say “I’m not OK” if they need help.
Here, she outlines her personal battle, Arsenal’s “essential” support and why mental wellbeing should be valued with the same importance in sport as a physical injury.
‘It was like a constant pressure on my chest’
“I never actually realised how I was feeling until a strange situation in training one day when I got hit in the face and I broke down, just off somebody hitting me in the face a tiny little bit,” recalled Mitchell.
“I went off to the side and I was like ‘I am really not OK’.
“For my whole career [training] was something I’ve loved to do, like it was like a hobby, but at that time I genuinely felt like it was really daunting.
“I was really low, in a way that I just didn’t want to socialise with anybody. I’d want to spend all day in my bed. There was family stuff that I’d never actually dealt with and it all got a bit too much.
“It was like I had a constant pressure on my chest, like somebody was standing on top of me. The experience of having family issues made me realise that I needed help.
“I went to Joe [Montemurro, Arsenal’s manager] after that training session and said ‘I need help’. I got to speak to a psychologist the next day and I was able to just talk, starting the process of feeling better again.”
‘I’d always used football as my escape’
Fife-born Mitchell says she has not previously told all of her team-mates about this – because she “never wanted to burden anybody else”.
But the backing of her closest friends in the squad and the expertise of Arsenal’s psychologists have helped her understand what she had been going through.
“Personally I’d always used football as my escape so, when stuff was going not so well off the pitch, coming in to football I could deal with that and it’d go away,” she added.
“But that wasn’t happening for me. I had this niggly injury, and I think it just all got to a boiling point. Everything all came at once. My bucket kind of over spilt.”
After spending time back at home in Scotland, Mitchell – who did not feature for the Gunners’ first team between 7 February and 21 April – was gradually re-introduced to full training.
“I got the train back home. By this point it already felt so much lighter, like somebody just got off my shoulders,” she continued. “I think I slept so much for the first three days. I had been physically and emotionally drained.
“[When] I came back, the club allowed me to do whatever I wanted until I felt comfortable to say ‘Ok, I’m ready to go back in training’. They really helped support me.”
‘The girls got the champagne out, and I just cried’
Arsenal would go on to clinch their first WSL crown since 2012 when they beat Brighton in front of what was a new WSL-record crowd of 5,265 on 28 April.
“That was probably one of the worst days. Everyone was buzzing and I just felt really away from it, trying to be part of this unbelievable feeling,” said Mitchell.
“I remember afterwards, I was smiling for the camera outside, and I remember going in the shower, and the girls have got champagne out, and I just cried.
“I’m proud to have been able to do that, because I’m not masking the hurt. I’m making room for my feeling here.
“I cried for 10-15 minutes in the shower, and after that I was fine. We partied 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.
“Prior to doing all the work [with the psychologist] I would have just bottled that away, and bottled it and bottled it, knowing it was just sitting with me.
“The biggest thing I’ve learnt since I’ve done the work with her is to actually make room for my feelings. We did a lot of work to see where my anxiety and my low mood came from, to identify it early.”
Does football need to talk more about mental health?
“I don’t think mental wellbeing is spoken about enough in football, not at all.
“If you’ve got a hamstring injury then you can do a test on the machine and see that it’s stronger but, because you can’t measure how somebody’s mental health is, it’s difficult to speak about that.
“I feel I’m lucky being at Arsenal in that I have had access to a psychologist and regular therapy and support.
“It should be valued with the same importance and support that is in place as standard for a physical injury.
“Even though playing football is brilliant, we’re all just human. Everybody could be low and have bad anxiety.”
Despite battling back to full fitness by the end of the season, Mitchell was overlooked for Scotland’s Women’s World Cup squad, which the 59-times capped defender says was “really difficult” to take.
“That was heartbreaking,” she added. “I feel I had truthfully done everything I could possibly do, in terms of giving myself the best chance to get selected for the national team going to the World Cup.”
Nevertheless, for Mitchell, the 2019-20 season ended with a memorable moment of brilliance, as she struck a late winner into the top corner from 25 yards to beat second-placed Manchester City.
“I think you could see from my reaction that I’m actually trying not to cry. It was a really emotional day. I feel like it was just written for that to happen to me,” she said.
“I never score goals, and then to score a goal like that, it was really nice, and my family was there. My reaction says it all.
“I knew I’d worked so hard to get to this point. I felt like I deserved that. This was my moment. That was nice.”
Mitchell and the Gunners have started the new campaign with a 100% record in all competitions, topping the early-season table and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.
“I’ll keep working on my mental health being great,” added Mitchell.
“I just want to be happy and enjoying football, wearing the Scotland jersey again, playing with a smile on my face and just getting stuck into dirty tackles. That’s me, so that’s exciting.”
Emma Mitchell was speaking to BBC Sport’s Jo Currie.
If you or someone you know has been affected by a mental health issue, help and support is available at bbc.co.uk/actionline
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