Karen Carney was in a dark place when the phone call came. Bombarded by abuse over social media, Britain had entered a third coronavirus lockdown, and the former England star turned pundit was feeling more isolated than ever. In one, desperate, moment she contemplated whether life was worth living. At the end of the phone was Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes. She was concerned. “You're not yourself”, she told Carney bluntly.
“Anyone who knows Emma knows she just gets straight to it, very direct,” reflects Carney now, in her first interview with a national about the struggles she has faced. “She was the first person to say ‘go and get help again. You're not dealing with this’. She had watched me on TV, sat back and thought ‘mmm, she's not herself’. So she just outed me, brutally. I agreed with her.
The conversation was a much needed wake up call. “I broke down a bit and I said ‘no, I’m not ok’. I was definitely spiralling, so to be fair to her, it was the right intervention. Sometimes the truth hurts. She was absolutely right. So I went and got help.”
As one of a handful of women trailblazers who have made the transition from playing football to punditry in the men’s game, Carney’s profile has rocketed in recent years. Alongside Alex Scott, a former team-mate, the 34-year-old has earned respect for her knowledgeable and incisive opinions. But the increased profile has exposed her to the worst of social media trolling and, in December 2020, Carney's wellbeing was rocked by significant online abuse for the second time in three years. On this occasion she deleted her Twitter account after receiving a barrage of sexist abuse following criticism of her punditry from Leeds United's official account.
Andrew Radrizzani, the Leeds United owner, initially doubled down on the tweet, to widespread condemnation from Rio Ferdinand to Women in Football. The story went viral, and US star Megan Rapinoe tweeted, “Shame. Shame. Shame. Thicken up that skin y'all. Also, don't come for @karenjcarney she's a National treasure.” Leeds later put out a statement condemning the abuse, and praising Carney’s media work. But the damage had already been done.
It was not the first time. In October 2018, Carney was sent death, rape and cancer threats via Instagram shortly after scoring the only goal in a Chelsea victory over Fiorentina in the Women's Champions League. Those messages were condemned as “abhorrent and totally unacceptable” by Chelsea.
“I've been through two social media situations. That first, while I was playing, really rocked me,” Carney recalled. “Stuff was coming through about death, rape and cancer, and it sets you off. Luckily, Emma Hayes was my manager and recognised I wasn't really right in training, so I had support.”
“More recently with the pandemic, it was highly documented, the abuse I got, that really sent me back and took me to a very, very dark and scary place. You're not with your loved ones in the pandemic, and to have that barrage of abuse was extremely tough. It traumatised me. I did counseling over it.”
In that same year Caroline Flack had taken her own life, and there was a national conversation about the impact of social media trolling. Carney felt frustrated that, despite the tragic loss of a much loved figure, lessons had not been learned. Her own experiences have since strengthened her determination to raise awareness of the issues and help others. “I'm very passionate about [the impact of] online abuse and now making sure people are aware of what they say to people.
“Online abuse isn't just for athletes, commentators, or pundits – it's about the 10-year-old little girl, the 15-year-old boy, adults – it [impacts] everyone. We are in a world where we need to be kind to each other.”
“We speak about it in Mental Health Awareness Week, but probably not enough throughout the year. It's so important to keep building these conversations, so that we create a safe space for people not just in this amazing week, but throughout the year,” the former midfielder continued.
“Football has a huge role. Going to the games, it's not necessarily about the 90 minutes. It's talking to people, ‘how was the game?’, icebreakers – all of that is mental health, because it connects people. The sport has a massive opportunity to help.”
In her early 20s, playing for Chicago Red Stars in the United States, Carney had previously suffered badly from depression following a string of injuries. “That period was probably one of the worst in my life,” Carney says now. “I had quite a bad breakdown, I had depression, self-harm and addiction to sleeping pills, insomnia and multiple effects on my mental health due to injury and being separated from my family.
“When I was going through it, maybe only two or three people knew. It took until quite a few years later for me to explain what had happened. I did an interview and [my family] read it and went, ‘why didn't you tell us?’. I do wish I'd reached out for help.
“It's just that I was a 21-year-old who couldn't communicate. My nickname at England was ‘mute’, that's what people called me, because I didn't speak. The only way I could communicate was on the pitch. I had to go right from rock bottom.
Carney’s counsellor recommended she learned more about mental health, and she undertook a “cathartic” Masters in Psychology, as well as completing a trauma course while playing for Birmingham City. “When you understand things, you can have more empathy, and also you can help yourself,” added Carney, who received an MBE for services to football in 2017.
“Sometimes, when you listen to someone or you communicate to someone, the relief that comes off that person’s shoulders is better than scoring any goal.”
- For further information and help throughout Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond, contact Mental Health UK