Fran Kirby: Managing Mental Health

WSA Member Ben Gilby joined The Women’s Sports Alliance Mental Health Discussion: With Fran Kirby on Wednesday evening as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. Fran spoke candidly about her own struggles and how she tries to manage them now as well as supporting others. With permission granted from the Women’s Sports Alliance, Ben has produced an article surrounding the key discussion points. As the WSA provided a safe space for Fran to talk openly and honestly, there were a few things that couldn’t be published, but here is a summary:

Above: Fran Kirby has had an incredible season. Photo: Mark Atkins/Getty Images

Fran Kirby is currently in the form of her life and one of the most respected female footballers in the world. Yet in order to reach that status, she has had to overcome some major hurdles. Hurdles that occasionally re-appear and need to be overcome again.

“I lost my Mum at the age of 14, Fran explained, “I didn’t allow myself a grieving space. I went to school the next day. It wasn’t until I was aged 16-18 that I noticed that things weren’t right in me.

“I didn’t understand who I was or what I wanted to be. With my Mum gone, I was growing up in a male dominated household and we weren’t good at speaking about our emotions. We didn’t mention the word ‘Mum’ for four years after her passing.”

It was incredibly hard for Fran to chart a path forwards to overcome these difficult times. For Fran, the support of a physio at Reading FC was instrumental in her mental state improvement.

“It’s so important to find someone that you can talk to. Quite often it’s someone who doesn’t know you all that well. The physio at Reading was older than me and I’d sit on her sofa and just cry.”

“I could see that (my mental condition) was affecting other people around me. I was becoming a person that I wouldn’t like to be around myself.”

“I stopped playing football for a year after Mum died. I knew that I would get back to football eventually. I needed to find joy in myself. At the age of 13 I had people telling me I would play for England – that was tough to hear and live up to. I had anxiety about coming back, but football was the biggest part of my life. For a long time I knew how much my Mum wanted me to play football. Now it’s a dream that I want to have. I still have bad days and I just accept that.”

Fran has also had to battle several major injuries and health scares over the course of her career. She outlined how the mental impact of this is not quite the same as the struggles that she faced after her Mother’s passing, but that didn’t make them any easier to overcome.

Above: Fran in action for Chelsea in the 2016 FA Cup Final against Arsenal. She would soon face a tough injury battle. Photo: Zimbio

The period between 2016 and 2017 when the Berkshire born player suffered back to back injuries which were hampered by slow recovery times due to problems diagnosing the exact nature of the injuries. It led to a period of around 12 months out of the game during which Kirby suffered pain so bad that she struggled to walk due to knee problems and bone edema (deep internal bruising).

“I went through so many ups and downs (in that period) and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I found in the end that the best thing to do was to be honest with the people around me about how I was feeling. I learned a lot about myself and took a lot of time to work things out.”

Last season saw Kirby experience another incredibly challenging period after being diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous sac that surrounds the heart which left her with sharp chest pain, fever, shortness of breath and general weakness.

“Mentally it was one of the craziest things that I’ve experienced in my life, Fran said. “It was a trauma. Just thinking about coming back and playing football scared me because of how I was feeling. I just couldn’t think of anything worse than getting back playing.”

“Then I got injured in my first England training camp after recovering from the pericarditis. That was possibly my biggest mental battle.”

Fran feels that it is incredibly positive that more professional sports stars are talking about their mental health battles. “We have to be honest. We’re not robots, we’re human beings. It gives the fans more of a personal relationship with you. If they can see our struggles and we’re getting through it then maybe they see that they can too if they have struggles.” The relationship with fans is something that comes with positives and negatives for sports players’ mental health. “When the fans are happy with you, it’s great. When they are not, it’s hard to separate this. I try not to get too caught up in opinions of me. I don’t look at comments about my performance because it can impact you.”

In terms with how mental health is dealt with at Chelsea, Fran is hugely positive. “Emma Hayes has been amazing through everything that I’ve been through. You need to feel reassured and valued. You need to feel what you are doing for your job is important. I was still being told how valued I was and how I was part of the squad.”

Fran concluded with a suggestion for everyone on how to try and support as many people’s mental health as possible. “Little things like a smile is a big deal. When you’re walking down the street, look up from your phone at the people who walk past and smile at them. I always try to make a conscious effort to do that. Smiles are infectious! You don’t know, maybe someone you passed and smiled at was really struggling and that smile you gave them was a big positive thing for them.”

Ben is a Women’s Sports Alliance Member and took so much from the Mental Health Discussion: with Fran Kirby event. As supporters of the WSA and their work, we urge you to become a member, today. Register here: https://www.wsportsalliance.com/membership to ensure you are able to access the range of events coming up.

Thank you to the Women’s Sports Alliance, Fran Kirby and WSA Founder Jordan Guard for putting on such a great virtual event.

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