England stars Lucy Bronze and Demi Stokes discuss mental health challenges and the topic of loneliness as part of Mental Health Awareness Week

When you see Lucy Bronze bombing down the right flank and Demi Stokes confidently holding the fort at the back for England, surrounded by team-mates who cherish them and thousands of fans who adore them, you would not think that here are two players who have struggled with loneliness at times in their careers.

With more than 150 international caps and multiple winners’ medals between them, the duo are fierce competitors on the pitch and two of the most experienced players in the Lionesses squad.

But when the two 30-year-olds sat down with presenter Adam Smith as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the pair explained how the campaign’s 2022 theme of loneliness was one which struck a chord.

Having initially made their names as teenagers at Sunderland, both went on to secure scholarships in the United States, with Stokes spending four years at the University of Florida and Bronze joining the University of North Carolina.

And Stokes revealed: “You have to push yourself [socially] and I felt I had to do that because the American personality was very different to what I was used to.

“I remember someone had a house party and I didn’t go to it and I got in trouble from my coach for not going to it. She was like ‘you need to interact with the girls more and you need to go’.

“Whereas I was more ‘I’m not here to get drunk’ but she explained ‘that side of it, whether you like it or not, is something you need to push’. Whereas I was not there to do that. I was there to get a degree, I wanted to improve and then go back home.”

Bronze was 17 when she first went to the United States and acknowledged she struggled being so far away from her family and with the reality being different to her expectations.

But the lessons learned in those formative years stood her in good stead when she joined European powerhouse Lyon in 2017 at the age of 25.

The defender, who in 2020 was named the FIFA Best Women’s Player of the Year, said: “I was always a deadly shy child and it was something that I had to work on because I know in myself that if I don’t work on it and don’t push myself then I will end up in that lonely place and it is not a place that I want to be.

“So going to France was another level, where people were speaking a different language. I needed to put myself out there a little bit more, be prepared to make friends, have plans and be open to doing things a little bit more because you are on your own. Whereas in England I am not like that because I am more comfortable, and I have a good support system around me.”

Along with moving away from home to join a new club or university, another problem many footballers face is being sidelined with long-term injuries, something which both Bronze and Stokes have endured during their careers.

Bronze said: “As I have got older, it has been easier but my worst one was when I was at university and I had a knee injury which kept me out for a whole year. I was really lonely at the time because I was in my first year of university so I was trying to make friends but I was trying to play football and was injured, on crutches, I couldn’t drive and it was really difficult. 

“But at the same time, I learned from that experience for every other injury that I have had. Making sure I keep in touch with people a bit more and making sure I am open about if I am having a bad day.

“I am someone who hates admitting weakness or admitting I’m wrong or that I don’t feel good. And I worked out from that [experience] that there is a strength to not saying you are good, because training when you are not good, for your body, is worse for you and it is the same for your brain.

“Trying to force yourself when you are not good can be the worst thing for you sometimes and you need to step back, reset, calm yourself down and then start again.”

Bronze and Stokes were speaking during a conversation with Smith as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. 

The campaign is an annual event and this year’s theme is loneliness, with the aim of encouraging people to build meaningful connections with friends, family members, colleagues and their communities.

Discussions around mental health have increased in recent years and both Bronze and Stokes referenced the important impact the likes of England legend Karen Carney have had on them by opening up about their own mental health challenges.

Stokes said: “When we were younger, we would watch Kaz Carney and we thought she was invincible and she had a life which is like roses and daffodils and nothing bad happens. So growing up and being able to see people like Kaz say ‘I’m struggling’, for the younger players it shows ‘yeah I’m a footballer but I am human’.

“I wouldn’t want the younger age groups to go through what we went through and how we felt so it is important that we start those conversations and ask if people are alright.

“It is uncomfortable and it is not nice sometimes, on both sides, but I think we can change the perception around mental health and recognise that everyone has something going on.”

The full conversation with the England pair can be seen above, as they both looked to provide advice for anyone who is struggling with their mental health.

Bronze said: “We need to look for people and ask for help. Don’t wait until it is too late and try not to be too reactive and try to be proactive, especially if you know you are vulnerable to feeling lonely or feeling bad about yourself.”

She continued: “My advice to people would be to ask for help. I do subtle hints to people. Even if you can’t say that you need help, your body language can show it or you can show it in other ways where hopefully people can pick up the signs.

“For me, speaking to someone who I don’t know helps because it is easier to open up. Sometimes you worry about telling your family because maybe you will worry about dragging them down but equally your family are also there to help you and support you, like I would go to my mum with anything.”

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