Conor Whelan: “Mental Health is always something I’ve been passionate about”

By Paul Shaughnessy

2023 was a year where Conor Whelan stood up with inspirational performances for Galway, between the Leinster final and the All-Ireland quarter final Whelan racked up a total of 2-10 across the two games. Later this year, the tribesmen sharpshooter is expected to be named an All-Star for the second time given his performances across the championship.  

Conor Whelan’s ability to score from anywhere inside the scoring zone along with his strength and power makes him a difficult opponent for any defender in the country.

But there is a lot more to him than hurling.

At the moment the Kinvara clubman is currently doing a PhD in mental health and well-being. How did this career choice come about? “I would have been a teacher in Ballygar for four years,” said Whelan, talking to Galway Pulse. “Then I decided I wanted to do a PhD and mental health is something I’ve always been passionate about. So, then I explored how I was going to do it.”

The Galway sharpshooter decided to pursue his PhD instead of teaching. The PhD requires a lot of work, including reading literature, conducting surveys, writing up and presenting your findings, and publishing your work.

It is a four-year process that Whelan has happily committed to. Whelan explains, “I was originally going to do it on the challenges for post-primary students, but in the middle of that I decided to focus on third-level GAA players and the mental health and well-being challenges they had.”

None of these challenges that elite GAA players face surprise Whelan himself, as a lot of it is things he experienced himself during college.

‘The biggest eye-opener from my perspective is the amount of student-athletes that identify as an athlete as opposed to a student. The amount of students that are willing to sacrifice their academic career, get average grades in order to be successful in their chosen GAA sport even though there are no prospects of going professional,” he said. “And you end up with a lot of students in careers that they probably didn’t want to be in or that it fits around their chosen sporting career whether that’s football, hurling, ladies football or camogie.”

“It doesn’t come as a surprise to me and I can resonate with a lot of it.” Whelan explains, “I know for myself when I was in college, I was hurling away with Galway and I was happy out. I’m not sure if the issue is a lack of guidance or is it education; I just don’t know are people in a position to make a decision at that age. My study is hoping to explore how it exactly plays out.”

Some students can play for five teams throughout the year which can include their U20 club and county team, Senior club and county team along with playing Fitzgibbon for their college. Whelan explains, “That’s obviously going to have effects.”

Mental health is something the UCC student became of when he tragically lost his cousin Niall Donohue to suicide in 2013. Niall Donohue lined out for his county in 2012 and 2013 where he won an All-Ireland U21 title, a Leinster title and was nominated for an All-Star.

“Niall is a massive factor – in that but I have internal motivations from being on the ground and seeing people being affected by mental health issues. I think there is a multitude of factors.”

“Back then I think society was way less informed in terms of mental health and there was very much a stigma around it. There’s still a good bit to go in terms of that conversation but I think we’ve developed as a society. It’s obviously something that you would like to look at and try and do something meaningful in that area.” Whelan also adds, “I thoroughly enjoy learning and understanding it from a much deeper perspective than a baseline level.”

At the time a lot of Niall’s teammates were in shock about his death and difficult conversations were had. “I would have chatted to the likes of David Burke, who would of been one of his best friends, Aidan Harte, [who] would of grown up with him and they’d be some of my close friends,” said Whelan. “We’ve had lots of conversations over the years and he would come up in conversation at any stage and I just love hearing stories about him.”

After Galway’s 2017 All-Ireland victory, Conor Whelan raised a flag in remembrance of Niall. Later that day it was revealed that Galway captain David Burke left sliotars at his grave before the final. “It’s probably something that’s brought me closer with my teammates having known Niall and being his cousin aswell,” said Whelan.

Conor Whelan believes that perspective is crucial when it comes to the highs and lows of sports.

“Over the last couple of years, I’ve realised that there is life outside of hurling but for me the most important thing is about enjoying hurling.”

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