Brighton forward Whelan: Mental health is more important than ever right now

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Brighton forward Aileen Whelan in action (Credit: Brighton & Hove Albion/Kyle Hemsey)
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At a time when coronavirus is causing huge uncertainty, Brighton & Hove Albion forward Aileen Whelan believes mental health has never been more important than it is right now.

The 28-year-old had been in scintillating form before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, scooping the most recent PFA Fans’ Player of the Month award for February.

But with all football suspended until it is safe and appropriate to return, Whelan has been making use of her other unique skillset to stress the importance of mental health during the lockdown.

Working as a play therapist away from football, and with a background in child psychology, Whelan is keen to shine a light on the difficulties many will experience during this troubling time.

“Mental health is more important than ever right now,” Whelan explained recently on Twitter. “Keep talking to one another and stay active, it will all be over soon.”

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Whelan used the knowledge she has from her studies and work to help her fellow Brighton teammates whenever she was called upon.

“I have always worked with children in a childcare capacity and wanted to be able to support children with additional needs and mental health difficulties,” she said.

“This spurred me to attain a masters degree at university in child psychology and train as a play therapist. I work with children that present difficulties in behaviours, social interaction, cognitions and emotions.

“I use a variety of play tools so children display their difficulties instead of talking about them. Sometimes children don’t know how to articulate their difficulties.

“Toys and play tools can break down that barrier. I find it fascinating how powerful play is for children and to see them develop confidence.

“There are lots of things that you can incorporate from the job of a play therapist into football: communication, leadership, problem solving, listening.

“I apply knowledge I have in mental health to help my team mates if they ask for my support and to keep team morale strong.”

Whelan arrived at Brighton from Everton in 2017 and helped the club gain promotion to the top tier in her first season before retaining their WSL position last term, finishing ninth.

The Seagulls had looked on course to replicate that finish before the enforced suspension, with Whelan’s goals against Manchester United and Everton boosting their safety prospects.

Whelan had also featured as Brighton reached the quarter-finals of the Women’s FA Cup as Hope Powell’s team showed signs of taking the next step up.

But in spite of her own individual success, Whelan was quick to pay credit to her teammates and the Brighton boss for turning round the club’s fortunes after a tough start to the campaign.

“For me, I always want to be scoring or assisting so it feels great to be able to do this for the team,” she said.

“Hope has been and always will bring a fountain of knowledge and experience to Brighton.

“She has given me the freedom to express myself on the pitch and allowed me to find confidence in my performances again.

“Both Hope and [assistant head coach] Amy Merricks support me and demand more of me each time I play which encourages me to get better week by week.

“The technical aspect they bring is very good and the finer details they both input into training sessions has made us all better individually and as a team.”