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Breaking down barriers to mental health – Sir John Kirwan

An article from Money & Life an FPA publication

Ever since his own battle with depression more than 30 years ago, former All Black Sir John Kirwan has campaigned for mental wellbeing for all. He talks to Miriam DeLacy about the key challenges and opportunities he sees in supporting mental health, in the workplace and beyond.


For decades, being in the spotlight has been a part of life for Sir John Kirwan – known to his family, friends and colleagues as ‘JK’. Long before he began speaking to audiences of 1000+ people about mental health, he played rugby union in front of capacity crowds at sports stadiums throughout the world.


Following his debut in 1984, JK played for the New Zealand All Black rugby team for a decade, racking up a total of 63 test appearances and a record-breaking 35 tries. Fans who saw the inaugural World Cup in 1987 will remember his length of the field run to score a try against Italy in the pool stages. JK also helped his team to victory in the final with a try against France, bringing his total try tally for the tournament to six.


As an athlete performing at his peak for a winning team you might expect him to be elated by these experiences. But JK remembers all too clearly the feelings of doubt that dogged him as he left the field following that celebrated try against Italy. “I walked off thinking I was going to be dropped from the side,” he says. “I had imposter syndrome and I thought ‘when are the coaches going to realise I’m just lucky?’ That’s how low my confidence was.”


Coming back from the brink

His anxious reaction to a sporting achievement most of us can only dream of speaks volumes about the problems JK was facing. At that time there was a significant stigma around speaking up about mental health. “I had no frame of reference to help me understand what I was going through,” says JK. “My only experience of what it meant to be mentally unwell was watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I thought if I owned up to having problems that’s what I would face, being locked up and pumped full of drugs.”

As an elite athlete, it was even harder for JK to ask for the help he so desperately needed. “Being an athlete was actually a hindrance when it came to owning up to my problems with mental health,” he says. “It made it harder for me to accept that I was suffering from an illness. I thought of it as a weakness that I had to overcome and I told myself to just be stronger.“


“When you’re an athlete it’s all about your body, your physical condition,” he adds. “I’d have three massages a day and train to keep myself in the best condition but there was little attention paid to my state of mind. What was going on in my head couldn’t matter as much as what I could put my body through.”


Over time his condition became so serious that JK could no longer ignore the fact that he was very unwell. The turning point came on an international tour with the All Blacks when he found himself contemplating suicide. “I was in a hotel room in Buenos Aires, thinking about throwing myself out the window because I simply couldn’t bear it any longer,” he says. “Then one of my team mates said to me out of nowhere ‘you’ve got a big heart John.’ His words literally saved my life. They made me stop and realise just what it was I was thinking of doing. So instead of ending it all, I decided it was time to get help.”


“When I returned home, I went to see our team doctor. He’d been on that tour with us and I hadn’t said a word to him about how bad I had been feeling for close to five years. From then on I started working with a psychiatrist to develop the habits and behaviours that I’ve built up on my journey to better mental health. When I let those things slip I notice the impact on how I’m feeling. I need to be disciplined and diligent about returning to those habits to get me back on an even keel.”


Building on mental health insights

From that time forward, JK has been a high-profile advocate for mental health. He felt that if just one person could be helped by hearing about his experiences, then it would be worth speaking out and sharing the story of his mental illness and the behaviours, habits and tools he used to help him recover.


It’s these very habits, that JK and a team of clinical experts have combined with other scientifically proven techniques to create an app designed to help people work on their mental health every single day. Called Mentemia – Italian for ‘my mind’ – the app was originally designed for workplaces to offer employees simple ways to bounce back from stress, manage anxiety, and experience more enjoyment in daily life.


But with the enormous stress COVID-19 is placing on so many people, the New Zealand government, together with Westpac and Kiwibank, have put their support behind the Mentemia app, making it available to all New Zealanders free of charge for the next six months. AIA Vitality have also stepped forward to enable Mentemia to provide the app to all Australians at no cost for a limited time.


“Mentemia has been designed to support people in making small changes to their everyday routines to help them stay aware of how they’re feeling,” says JK. “It also introduces simple steps that people can take to keep feelings of stress, anxiety and frustration from escalating. And it’s also about learning techniques to help people feel more positive, more resilient, and better equipped to enjoy life, even when things are difficult. The app takes a personalised approach that seeks to meet you where you are by understanding your personality and your routine so that you can use the Mentemia app and resources in a way that makes sense for you.”


With its quick prompts and short videos, the app takes a nudge approach to behaviour change. “There’s already plenty of advice out there on looking after your mental health,” says JK. “With Mentemia, we’ve brought it all together in one place and broken it down into these accessible, practical components. It’s like having a mental health coach in your pocket.”


A focus on prevention

As a long-term campaigner for mental health support, JK can clearly see just how far we’ve come in removing the stigma around mental health and making support available to those in crisis. But with suicide numbers continuing to rise, it’s equally clear that there is room for improvement in the type of support available and how it’s delivered.


“Even though the stigma around mental illness is far less, the number of suicides is still going up,” says JK. “As someone who had become a voice and face for mental health, I really took this on board and wanted to see what more could be done. I became very aware that we still have limited support available for people who aren’t yet in crisis. There’s plenty of funding for the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff and that’s as it should be. But what about the fence we need at the top of the cliff to stop people from needing the ambulance? That’s where we need more resources, more funding.”


“I also realised that our governments on their own simply don’t have the funding to fill this need. So the effort and resources have to come from businesses and communities. We need all these groups to put their focus on supporting people before they find themselves moving towards that cliff edge.”


Making space for mental health at work

This is one of many reasons why the Mentemia team originally developed their app for workplaces. They saw the opportunity to put a tool in the hands of employees as a key element in a broader program to support organisation-wide change in mental health outcomes. However, JK is quick to acknowledge that the app alone is not enough to bring about the cultural shift that truly supports better mental health. It takes a genuine commitment from leaders, who can see the need for change.


“When business leaders genuinely care about creating a culture of better mental health and shifting the dial, they’re the ones who are having success in supporting employees,” says JK. “If it’s just a box ticking exercise for them, they’re not going to put in the resources, commitment and leadership that can make such a difference to their employees’ experience of going to work.”


“I’m speaking to more business leaders who are seeing the figures for absenteeism and presenteeism rising. They see how often people are leaving their jobs and looking for another because they just don’t feel supported. It’s those leaders who see the business case for supporting mental health in the workplace but also know it’s the right thing to do. That’s when you see leaders succeed in creating a culture that truly supports better mental health in the workplace.”


Back to work after COVID-19

In 2020, mental health in every context has become even more important. Thanks to Australia and New Zealand’s early success in slowing the spread of COVID-19, concerns about the mental health impact of the pandemic have come to the fore. While JK sees this as a chance for businesses to place a greater focus on mental wellbeing for their workforce, he also points out that there’s no one-size fits all when it comes to supporting employees.


“If we look at the positives from the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been way more open about our mental health and talking about it more,” says JK. “I had one business making time for 15-minute mental health chats before a meeting starts, so that people have the time to bring up any issues they need to talk about it. We need to take this opportunity to make sure talking about mental health continues to be an important thing in the workplace.”


“As people start returning to work in their offices and spending more time face-to-face, we need to be prepared for all the different reactions people are going to be having,” he adds. “We’ve just been through habitual change by force. People have changed their habits and some will want to stick with them and some won’t. If you think about the introverts in this world, they’ve loved every minute of being at home and don’t really want to go back to being out in in the world. Then you have the extroverts who’ve been suffering from having such limited contact with other people. What we’re going to have in our companies is a group of those people all mixed up. We need to prepare for the awkwardness when one person comes back to work needing a hug and another person feels afraid to touch others.”


“It’s also important to know that how businesses cope with managing all this change and awkwardness isn’t going to be perfect. Leaders are going to make mistakes but as long as they’re open and honest about trying to do the right thing, everyone can be more understanding. My advice to anyone in a team, whether you’re a leader or not, is to be kind to yourself, be accepting of your emotions and be kind to others.”


The Mentemia app is free to download from the App Store or Google Play.

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